Divergence - Part 1
Rainbow Dash started, darting glances left and right, trying to pierce the fog that seemed to close about her. Shaking off her fright, she drew herself upright, wings extended aggressively as her front hooves lashed the air before her.
"Who's there? I ain’t scared ‘a you! Show yourself!"
A seductive voice slid from the mist. "We've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the best flier in Equestria."
Dash was nonplussed. "Who?"
"Why, you of course!"
"Really?! I mean, oh yeah! Me!" she said, recovering quickly.
"Hey, uh, ya wouldn't mind telling the Wonderbolts that would ya, cuz I've been trying to get into that group for, like, ever!"
"No, Rainbow Dash, we want you to join us, the Shadowbolts!" A trio of Pegasus ponies had galloped out of the fog, coming to a halt in unison, displaying their coat-tight black and purple uniforms proudly; vivid bolts of lightning were emblazoned around the shoulder, angling down to meet at the chest. "We're the greatest aerial team in the Everfree Forest, and soon we'll be the greatest in all Equestia! But first, we need a captain. The most magnificent...”
“Yep,” Rainbow chirped pridefully.
“...bravest flier in all the land."
“Yes, heh, it’s all true,” Dash quipped in agreement.
"We need… you!"
"Woo-hoo!" Rainbow Dash cried, her life's ambitions laid out before her. "Sign. Me. Up! Just, lemme tie this bridge real quick, then we got a deal," she said, turning to the business at hoof.
“Ah yes, your friends. You're very loyal to them aren't you?”
The rope dropping from her mouth, Dash's eyes narrowed as she turned to glare back at the uniformed mare that slowly advanced towards her, an air of malice replacing the cooing flattery present just a moment ago. Something was seriously wrong here. "Of course I am, what's that got to do with anything?" she asked suspiciously.
"Oh, it just seems that if you really cared about them, you wouldn't be leading them into so much danger. Danger that nopony without your talents, your abilities, your courage could possibly hope to survive." Dash hadn't noticed the purple mist winding through the grass toward her hooves, and her eyes went wide as it made contact, the visions assaulting her mind—
Letting out a battle cry, she twists violently to dodge a burst of flame, watching in mute horror as it washes over Rarity, burning the flawless coat and delicate flesh off the beautiful Unicorn right before her eyes.
Twilight Sparkle is laughing maniacally, standing amidst the wreckage of bodies, her horn casting a violet light on a charred and torn cowpony hat.
Ponyville burns, the townsponies fleeing aimlessly in their blind panic. Windows lie shattered, doors hanging from the hinges of ruined buildings. Above, massive sections of Cloudsdale split apart, the cumulus infrastructure breaking off in enormous slabs, lightning shooting out in every direction. Untrained fillies fall from the sky, a tiny one with a shock of purple mane terribly, horrifyingly familiar.
Dash shrieks in horror and pain as her left wing, shorn raggedly off, tumbles away from her. She spirals out of control, her remaining wing flapping in instinctive desperation as she plummets toward the ground in a sickening spin. She takes one more deep breath, and meets it.
The command cut through the visions like a blade. Tendrils of frayed, purplish mist went slithering into the surrounding brush, fleeing from the rigid body of the rainbow-maned Pegasus. With a ragged gasp and half-swallowed scream Dash sank to the ground, legs numb, wings trembling uncontrollably.
Out of the now-normal gray fog gracefully clopped another form—that of a beautiful, midnight-blue Alicorn, her wings half-furled, crescent moon shining on her flanks. Her mane billowed subtly, contained within it the intermittent twinkling of a celestial tapestry. She snorted lightly at the retreating magical mists before turning to the thoroughly traumatized filly huddled in the grass.
"Oh my… are you alright little one?" the mare asked as she walked up to stand above the violently shaking pony, wings arching protectively around the filly.
"What... I… ohmygosh what is going on? What was that? Why would Twilight… Ponyville. Th-the fillies… Scootaloo!" Rainbow Dash was torn ragged with hyperventilation and blind horror as her mind tried to process everything she'd just seen; tears slid unchecked, furrowing her cheeks.
The Alicorn nickered soothingly. "There, there. Just breathe. None of what you saw was real. Necessarily… or perhaps, in all honesty, yet. You were shown things to sway you—to serve a purpose. Vile, yes, but not entirely false. Those things, and many more like them, may indeed come to pass should the Nightmare have its way."
At the mention of Nightmare Moon, Dash regained some of her presence, wobbling to her hooves, slipping on the wet grass. "That’s right! We have to stop that… that thing! She stole our princess, an’ wants to make nighttime last forever! She… wait a sec. Who the hay are you, huh?” Dash took a wide step back, her foreleg raising defensively. “And what are you doing here? My friends are right behind me and we're on a royal mission! Twilight's the personal student of Princess Celestia herself, and she knows what's going on, so if you're plotting something or whatever, y-you better just back off, right now!" Dash said, her words suspicious and harsh. She took two more quick steps back and ducked her head, her wings flaring and tail snapping at this dark mare who reminded her perversely of both Nightmare Moon and Princess Celestia—and just happened to show up out of nowhere in the middle of the Everfree Forest. Yeah right.
The Alicorn heaved a deep sigh and drooped her head a bit, gleaning the little pony's body language as easily as a book she'd read a thousand times. "My name is Luna. Arbiter of the Night, and sister to Celestia. I mean you no harm, little one."
Dash stared at the goddess blankly. "What." It was not a question.
Luna blinked. "What?"
Dash raised a brow. "You're kidding, right? I mean, Celestia's like, a goddess."
Luna daintily fluttered her wings and tilted her head, calling attention to her horn and darkly opalescent crown. The blue Pegasus bit her lip, taking in the shining, silver crescent moon on Luna's flank—the signposts of Alicorn divinity didn’t get any more self-evident.
"And you are?" the Goddess queried politely into the slack-jawed silence.
"Erm. Name's Rainbow Dash," she said, momentarily sidetracked. Rallying, Dash decided to go with her gut feelings, if only to avoid the inevitable headache of complexity. "I… dude, this is too much." She sat down, her expression dazed. "So are you Nightmare Moon, and is this like a big trick, or... or what?" she asked, thoroughly befuddled, her hooves wide in the air.
Luna smiled. "No, kind of, and… I’m not sure what to do with the ‘or what’ Miss Dash. While the Nightmare and I returned at the same time, we are not the same being… closer to polar opposites now, come to that. While we still share latent experience to a minor extent, that connection is nearly severed, and the sooner the better." Luna huffed in disgust. "The Nightmare reached out and showed you your greatest ambitions to attempt to control you. Failing that, your most terrifying nightmares to break you. I noticed its actions a bit late, I'm afraid," she said apologetically.
Dash was struggling hard to keep up. "So… that was all fake then, just a line of manure?" she asked with a hint of hopeful desperation.
Luna shook her head wearily. "I do not know, Miss Dash. The Nightmare doesn't always lie, but it will without compunction if doing so serves its purposes—and it is very clever. I have learned to be… profoundly dubious, whenever our interests appear to coincide. As to your friend, this Twilight Sparkle, she may or may not be a pawn in all of this. I'm not certain as to the quality, nor sources, of her information, or even the nature of her relationship with my sister... who has been known to have something of a … predilection for manipulation herself… but I don't know."
Luna trailed off, a far-distant look in her eyes, before giving a small shake of her head.
"Nevertheless, one thing is very clear—if your friends make it to the castle while the Nightmare and I are vying for control, they will not survive. The forces unleashed will be well beyond any mortal pony’s endurance."
"But what about the Elements of Harmony stuff? Twilight says we're supposed to get them, and that they're the only thing that can stop Nightmare Moon! And where the hay is our Princess? We have to find out what happened to her!" Dash burst out, unable to contain all the questions the Alicorn’s story raised.
Luna frowned in thought, one hoof scuffing the grass absently. "Yes… the Elements; that’s the only thing that currently makes sense. The Nightmare obviously hopes to use you and your friends to reveal them, then obliterate you and gain control. Without the Elements of Harmony, it knows it can not hope to defeat me. With them, however…" Luna trailed off ominously, reminding Dash of her terrifying visions. "No, Miss Dash, the Elements must remain asleep and out of reach for now; it is the only way to be certain of the Nightmare’s defeat in our coming conflict. As for Celestia… I don't know what to make of her disappearance at all. I had hoped…" Luna slipped into a disturbed silence for a moment, her eyes glinting as though in pain. "No, this is an absurdity. Even at the height of its power, the Nightmare could not match Celestia outright. I should know; I watched as it tried, with much of my own power. Where my sister has gone and why she remains there is a mystery of her own design.” The emerald eyes narrowed slightly as Luna scowled. “ But I mean to ask her. And soon."
"But… but what if the Nightmare wins?" Dash asked, unconsciously slipping into the regal Alicorn’s vernacular.
Luna’s severity seemed to evaporate. "Oh, it won't,” she said lightly. “It knows full well that it cannot defeat me outright. We've spent the last thousand years becoming intimately familiar with one another, and now I've returned. Home. The severing between us is nearly complete, and much of my power has returned to me. Yet it will struggle, and rant, and rave. While futility is not strictly its nature, it is a creature of undiluted pride and the need to control. The compulsion to dominate drives it, and so I must drive it down. No, it is only the Nightmare's plots that concern me now. I cannot be completely certain what it is planning, but the game it plays with you and your friends is central. Whatever that may be, it is the final hand, and the Nightmare is desperate to see it through," Luna finished with an indomitable certainty.
A tiny, sad smile slid across her face, but was quickly gone. Her voice filled with command, she said, "You must prevent your friends from coming further. The best thing would be for you all to return to Ponyville for the night. You must try keep everypony calm and safe. Then, if you would, return to me in the morning when the Nightmare has been subdued, and we can attempt to discover my sister’s whereabouts."
Dash felt like she was drowning. "Morning?! But the Nightmare and the legends both talked about eternal night! And Celestia's gone; how can there be a morning? How can there be a sunrise?" she exclaimed.
Luna's gentle laugh was moonlight across a still lake. "Few things are more imprecise than old legends, my little pony. I will raise the sun in my sister’s stead if need be, though I hope to discover Tia's whereabouts well before I have need to work with her sun. It is… an uncomfortable arrangement, for both of us. Eternal night? What a foalish notion! Equestria as we know it could not survive that; though, in its compulsion to dominate, that is indeed the Nightmare’s intent.” Luna paused, her head canting to one side. ”Really, it's quite insane."
Dash stared boldly up into the emerald eyes of the goddess, searching for some hint of deception or duplicity. Dash's strong suit had never been analysis; she'd always relied on her heart and feelings to show her the way through when things got rough, but this time was different; there was so much more at stake.
“I... I don’t know Princess. I want to believe you; I do believe you, but it’s... there’s so much more than just me riding on this...” she trailed off, frowning hard at the grass, her tail lashing in agitation.
Luna regarded the young mare for a long moment, then stomped her hoof lightly. “Very well, Miss Dash, I understand: Witness.”
The Princess turned away from Dash and flared her wings, facing off to her right. What she was looking at, Dash couldn’t tell; everything was just a solid wall of fog. Luna’s horn began to glow, the violet light building until it seemed to create a nearly opaque sheath of luminescent energy. The Princess’s eyes had closed tightly, and she released a small sound of effort, tense and strained. The fog before her swirled away in a large funnel, creating a clear line of sight to the horizon beyond. Suddenly, the jagged mountain range in the distance became more distinct, glowing in a soft light. Luna clenched her teeth and groaned, as the sun peeked a brilliant sliver above the far-off crags, briefly illuminating the surrounding fog with a surreal orange glow.
Luna gasped and collapsed to her knees, breathing heavily. The fog swept back to surround them and the light vanished as abruptly as it had come. “I’m sorry, Miss Dash; that was the best I can manage at the moment,” she said between deep gulps of air, her shoulders quaking slightly.
Dash stood rooted to the spot. Her jaw hung down, eyes huge as she processed what she’d just seen. The sun. She just raised the sun... Realizing she had been staring blankly at a boring wall of fog for several moments, Dash tore her gaze down to the recovering Alicorn. Trotting over to Luna, she settled down next to her. “Okay, Princess; that... that’s good enough for me. That should be good enough for anypony. You totally are who you say you are, so...” She floundered for a moment. “...So let’s go and talk to the others, tell them what's going on," she said, focusing on the one thing that it seemed she could get done.
Luna raised her head to meet Dash’s gaze, her expression apologetic.
"I'm afraid there is simply no time. I must return to the castle and contain the Nightmare; prevent it from acting any further upon your friends or the land at large. You must turn back your friends, and I ask that you return to me at dawn, when I have managed to seal the creature away."
Rainbow Dash stared blankly at Luna. "You’re tearing me apart, pony," she deadpanned. At Luna’s nonplussed look, Dash sighed. She swallowed hard and shuffled her hooves—further considering the prospect and how to explain the situation to the Princess. "Look, I'm not exactly the best pony with, uh, words. Twilight's a reeeaaally smart pony, and she's totally sure she knows what's going on. I'm not sure I can convince her without you there. I mean, I believe you, but I don't see how I can make them believe me, especially if you're not even there! How the hell am I supposed to explain all this?!"
Luna opened her mouth to speak, but broke off suddenly, craning her neck backward and frowning over her shoulder toward the castle shrouded in the darkness. "I'm sorry, I have to get back quickly. It's gathering for another assault." She turned to look at Dash directly, a sympathetic intensity replacing the serene distance that had filled her eyes. "I wish I could be there to make this easier on you and your friends, but you must convince them. Failing that, know that whatever you do, you do to save their lives, whether they know it now or not."
Luna leaned forward, nuzzling Dash's cheek. "Be brave, my little pony. And… thank you for believing in me. I know you can do it, and I'll need your help even more in the coming weeks." Dash blushed lightly, hesitantly returning the gesture.
They rose to their hooves.
Now that she was set on a course, past the confusion and indecision, her usual fire returned to her and she stomped the ground confidently, ruffling her wings in preparation for take-off. "Be careful Princess Luna, I'll take care of my end, no problem!" Though damned if I know how…
Chapter 2 - “Confrontation” --->
Twilight Sparkle and Applejack stood nervously next to one another, the other ponies arrayed behind them, peering anxiously into the thick fog that surrounded them in all directions, hoping their friend was okay. There had been an inexplicable orange glow a moment ago that reminded them of a bonfire, and Dash was taking so long…
As if summoned by their shared concern, appearing in her trademark spectrum, Rainbow swooped out of the mist, alighting with a flourish in front of her friends.
"Rainbow!" Twilight shouted with relief. "I knew you could… do it?" she trailed off in confusion. The bridge was still impassable, one side hanging straight down.
Applejack snorted her impatience, scuffing the ground with a fore-hoof. "C'mon Dash, we need to get a move on! What’s the holdup?"
Dash's brow furrowed in concern at the imminent discussion, already taking a poor turn. Her gaze flicked off to the side as she took a deep breath and a pensive stance in front of her friends, one hoof lifted in trepidation. "Look Twi..." she started lamely, ignoring the workpony entirely for the moment, "um, maybe this isn't such a good idea after all."
Twilight's jaw hung to the hinges, unable to take the words seriously enough to form an immediate reply. Her mind went into autopilot, cycling through possibilities at high speed.
Applejack stepped forward with a much better reaction time, having never been one to overly suffer from cognitive dissonance. "What the hay are you on about girl? We need to get a move on and we need to go now! So get yer scrawny flank across that there chasm and tie off that bridge!"
Dash clenched her jaw, her wings flaring out reflexively—her hesitant posture abandoned and uncertainty evaporating at the direct challenge from the orange Earth pony, her long-time rival; though, their relationship was a bit more complex than either cared to dwell upon for too long. "Back off, Applejack; there’s more going on here than you know, okay?"
Applejack stood with her mouth agape for the second it took for Rainbow to turn to the purple Unicorn. "Twi, listen—there's more going on here than you told us, and more than you know about either. I think—"
Twilight’s eyes narrowed to violet slits as she stepped toward the flustered young mare, having settled on the most likely possibility to explain the situation. "Rainbow. What happened over there? You know that Nightmare Moon is back! She kidnapped the princess! She's been setting traps for us the entire way here; she’s trying to stop us from stopping her! Trying to kill us! I don't know what happened to you over there, or what lies she told you, but we have to keep going!"
"Twi, listen: what’s going on up there at the castle? That's… that's god stuff. We can’t go up there; we wouldn't survive!" Dash’s hoof reached out toward the Unicorn, desperate to convince the only one who stood a chance of convincing the others. "And she, I mean, it—didn't nab the princess, at least I don't think so. I mean, how could it have? Celestia's the damn su—wait! The sun! Didn’t you see it? Like, two minutes ago! It rose!”
Twilight looked at her sideways, ears plastering back against her skull. “The sun, Dash? You mean that orange glow? You thought that was the sun?” Twilight was staring at Rainbow in sheer disbelief, certain that something had happened to the blue Pegasus; though whether she had simply knocked her head, or there was some more sinister explanation, she couldn’t say. Frankly, right now she didn’t have time for it.
“Yes it was the sun! She rose—um...” Dash trailed off, thinking furiously; Shit, how do I even mention princess Luna without sounding like I've lost it? Of course they’d think I've been looped.
Twilight stamped her hoof with an academic finality, frustration lacing her voice as she said, "That’s why we need the Elements! To get back the real sun! That’s why you've been so thoroughly deceived, that’s why…” Twilight’s muzzles twisted in contempt. “Oh, we're wasting time! Move aside, Rainbow; I have to go on, stay if you like!" she declared, turning away from the increasingly desperate Pegasus.
Twilight began to prepare a teleportation spell, squinting to see a clear path through the opaque mists to the far side of the canyon, looking for a safe landing zone.
A determined look on her face, Dash interposed herself between Twilight and the canyon. "No, Twilight! I can't let you throw your life away like that. If you'll just listen to me for a minute, there are some things you have to hear. I’m not really sure how to start, but—"
"I've listened long enough!” Twilight interjected, cutting Dash off. “It couldn't be more apparent that Nightmare Moon tricked you or put a spell on you or… or something! I thought you were loyal, Rainbow Dash! I thought you'd ‘never leave Ponyville hangin’.’” Twilight spat the final words bitterly; her concern for whatever was going on with this Pegasus paling against the urgency she felt to save her life-long mentor.
Ouch. "I-it’s not that simple, Twi! I…" Gaah! How in the hell do I convince them?! Dash thought desperately, shaking her mane in frustration, trying to rally her thoughts.
A difficult process for her under the best of circumstances, not made any easier with Applejack, having recovered, stomping up nose-to-nose with her, green eyes glaring into her own. "Rainbow, Ah dunno what's come over you, but we ain't got time fer yer fillyfoolery! Time’s a wastin’ an’ we gotta git. So either git with us, or git outta the way!" she said, the last words punctuated with a strong hoof to the cyan mare’s chest.
Dash's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Listen, AJ, don't go there. I'm trying to get you all to see reason here, and you're not makin' it easy! You won't even listen to me for two seconds!"
Although she tried not to show it, Applejack was sick with worry for her family back on the farm. Little Apple Bloom had been crying something fierce and pathetic when she'd left, and now her frustration was spilling over despite her best efforts. "Horseapples to that, Sally!” she growled. ”It’s plain as day y’all have either been hoodwinked or just up an’ chickened out, but we don't have no more time to be wastin’ no-how!"
Rainbow’s expression turned furious, matching her rapidly building feelings of outrage and incredulity at her friends’ stark refusal to so much as hear her out. "So. You're callin’ me either a coward or an idiot, is that it AJ? Never thought I'd see the day you got any denser!" Dash said, her jaw clenched as she squared up to the Earth pony.
"Ah call ‘em like I see ‘em sugarcube," Applejack said, not backing an inch, sparks glinting in her narrowed eyes.
The tension in the air was building toward something inevitable, something explosive. In a small, very private corner of her mind—locked against the world—was a place Rainbow Dash held her doubts, her fears. Rarely released from its tightly controlled borders, the pony in that dark little space was now prancing about and chanting in a shrill voice, Ohmygosh this is getting out of hoof. Reeeeeally quick. Do something do something do something! Crap-crap-crap-crap-crap!
A cascade of impressions flit through her head in the space of her next breath, too quickly to be solidified in thought—
Twilight had moved slightly to her flank, getting clear of AJ. Twilight was a student of the princess, some magical protegé thing, so she was as wild-card as it got in Dash's book. She may try to attack, or just teleport across the gap, heading pell-mell to her own stupid death. On that note, she was also the only one both willing and able to go ahead alone. Bookworm: priority one, for her own sake.
Applejack: Powerful and sturdy, with unbelievable stamina. Dash knew she couldn't match her only real rival in Ponyville with strength alone. She'd seen AJ put her hoof into a dead tree with such force that it had shattered in a resounding crack, the corded wood splitting right up the trunk. She'd have to be really, really fast. Fortunately, she'd known the Earth pony long enough to know how she moved, how she thought, and—hopefully—how she fought. They'd scuffled before, sure, but never like this was shaping up to be. Never for real. On the upside, Applejack wasn't very imaginative; she was a heavily traditional pony. Once Dash got her rhythm down, it wasn't likely she'd have to deal with many surprises. She could do this… but it was really gonna suck.
Fluttershy: Poor filly hadn't made more than a series of squeaks since Dash got back. As nopony had accorded her attention, she hadn't gotten any. No threat, but certainly no help either. She cowered behind Pinkie with a terrified, disbelieving look across the bit of her expression visible behind her mane.
Pinkie Pie: Frozen in place; she looked to be in shock. Hopefully that would last, Dash had no clue what was going through her head—at least one thing tonight was normal—and had no notion of which way she'd go, or what the hell she'd do when she got there.
Rarity: She'd been making indignant squawks for the past few moments of "Darling!" and "Really now ladies!" Dash figured she'd stay out of anything that might chip a hoof; her most significant contribution likely to be ear-splitting noises. As usual.
Suddenly, Dash caught a glimmer of magic forming around Twilight’s horn, arching into electrical currents as it built, pointed not across the canyon, but right at her. The ingrained muscle-memory of the thousands of hours of training it had taken to get her black-belt kicked in, and that was that.
In single a fluid motion, Dash stepped to the side and back, dropping low to brace on her front hooves and pivoting her haunches, she snapped out one hind leg in a blur, nailing Twilight precisely on target on the side of her head—hopefully with just enough force to put her down. Twilight cried out as the hoof slammed home, the magic that had built in the Unicorn’s horn flaring brightly as the spell dissipated. The Unicorn fell to the ground in a crumpled heap.
Bringing her attention back to Applejack, she was thankful for the space she created between them in sliding back, because she just had time to register the blur of a hoof arching toward her head. Snapping her head to the side, it glanced off her shoulder and away as she regained her balance, pulling into a light stance in front of Applejack after a quick flutter backwards; Applejack followed—powerful, full bodied punches lashed out in a classic one-two, then spinning around, she launched into a full-force buck with her hinds. Predictable, Dash thought, the Earth pony's body language too telling and far too slow for a Pegasus that felt most at home at near-subsonic speeds. Dash’s head jinked right, then left; she felt the first blow graze her cheek, the second knifing through her mane. As Applejack went for the buck, she ducked low, pulling her wings in tight, then surging up with her shoulders while AJ's legs were above her, connecting with the workhorse’s belly and sending her flying head over hooves in an uncontrolled roll.
In the lull of the exchange, Dash took stock.
Rarity had begun screeching, and looked altogether disinclined to stop anytime soon. Twilight was immobile and insensate on the ground, a trickle of blood leaking from her mane, her head laid on the ground and her eyes closed. Amazingly, Fluttershy had gone mobile and was now crouching over the unconscious Unicorn, nuzzling her and whispering to herself, having gone fully into medic-mode. Pinkie, on the other hoof, looked to be carved out of stone, not even bothering to blink away the tears that poured down her face, in stark and disturbing contrast to her usually unbounded effervescence.
A groan drew her attention back to the orange mare on the ground, who was struggling back to her hooves. Applejack was glaring pure fury at the Pegasus from beneath ragged blonde bangs, torn loose from the tight braid she usually wore. She gasped sharply as she rose, trying to catch the breath that had been knocked out of her from the impact and subsequent roll across the hard ground. Spitting out a bit of grass, Applejack roared, "You… you buckin' traitor!" She flung herself straight at the rainbow-maned mare.
Dash was expecting another combination, not the full-bodied slam that AJ delivered. She attempted to roll around it but the force of AJ's rush had already over-balanced her and she fell backwards, cracking her skull sharply against the ground. She felt a weight settle roughly on top of her before stars exploded and her head was wrenched to the side, the vivid imprint of a horseshoe left across her face, trailing the solid blow AJ leveled at her after getting the athletic pony in one place. Another connected. And another. Dash tasted blood in her mouth and looked up at the wild-eyed Applejack straddling her, reaching back for another blow. The Earth pony's hooves were hardened to the point of stone from hard years of harder work, and each strike had felt like slamming straight into… well, an apple tree. No way she could take a few more of those; Dash already felt her face swelling, and a cut had opened up above her eye. Shit. Snapping her tail above and behind Applejack, she connected with her old friend’s beloved hat, knocking it forward over her face. There was a startled gasp from beneath the hat; Dash used the distraction to stretch both front hooves above her head before bringing them in a full arch right into the center of the worn Stetson with all of her strength. The hat produced a deep "Uff!" and the orange pony tumbled backwards. Dash quickly flapped her wings and gained her hooves, blinking rapidly to clear her vision and spitting the blood from her muzzle. Altogether more blood hit the ground than she was happy with.
Lesson learned. Dash gave the sturdy country pony no chance to recover this time. She was airborne, slamming both hoofs into AJ's side with as much speed as she could gather on the way over. Applejack lashed out blindly with an elbow, but the lightning-quick Pegasus rolled up and out of its path, sending a hoof down to snap across the work pony’s face for her trouble. Flowing with the momentum of her punch she spun on her mid-air axis to deliver a powerful buck, throwing her opponent back to the ground. As Applejack tried to rise again—She just won't quit!—Dash stepped in for a snapping uppercut under the orange pony's jaw, sending her blonde mane flying back and collapsing the workhorse into an unconscious pile of bruises.
Panting heavily, she stood over AJ, making sure the stubborn ass was done, and gasped out, "Da… damn it! Why wouldn't you just listen?! That’s all you had to do! Just take two seconds and fucking listen to me!" Her legs suddenly trembling, she reached up an unsteady hoof up to wipe away the blood that had begun to trek down the side of her face.
A strained, weak voice broke through her reverie, "...Dashie?"
Pinkie stepped forward, asking in a high, quavering tone: "Dashie… how could you?"
Dash was pulled from her reverie, her thoughts and feelings poorly sorted. She had been staring blankly at the disheveled mess that was one of her oldest friends, now laying in a beaten heap before her. She turned to the pink filly, whose mane seemed to deflate by increments before her eyes.
"Pinkie, I—ow!" Rainbow Dash yelped, stung by something hard striking her on the flank at high velocity.
Rarity was advancing slowly, horn shining brighter than Dash had ever seen it. Her eyes were narrowed, her jaw bunched hard enough to make a vein near her temple pulse visibly. Rocks were levitating around her, a dozen strong, and she was hurling them one after another at the Pegasus with incredible force.
Having taken a few hits from the stones, Dash knew she was going feel the bruises for days—provided they didn’t break any of her light bones outright. She threw herself into dodging them before a lucky shot could fell her.
"Rarity, you throw one more stone at me, I’m going to shove your horn sideways up your—"
Rarity reared back to her hind legs with a scream, abandoning the stones easily dodged by the agile Pegasus. She seized a large log laying nearby with her telekinesis, raising it above her. “You’re supposed to protect your friends!” she yelled, the shout tearing at her throat.
Dash had dropped into a balanced crouch, gritting her teeth, prepared to dart in any direction the moment Rarity hurled the deadly object. “That’s exactly what I’m trying to do!” she shouted back.
"Stop It!" yelled Fluttershy. At volume. The effect stunned everypony to shocked silence. "J- just stop it. Everypony. Please... Just stop," she said, reverting to a whispered plea, dropping her eyes from their wide-eyed stares and moving over to apply her attentions to the insensate Applejack, now and again releasing little exclamations as she examined the wounded pony.
Rarity, glaring blue death at Rainbow Dash, let the log drop and stepped over to the front of the focused Fluttershy; she stood protectively before the natural medic and her patient, as though she half-expected the unstable acrobat to rush over and attack at any moment.
Pinkie walked towards Dash, unafraid—too wounded to be afraid—just wanting to understand. "Why, Dashie? Why did you hurt our friends?"
Looking into the dinner-plate-sized eyes of the pink pony, the lack of her trademark exuberance cut deeply into Dash's heart; she heaved a deep sigh. She'd never felt so horrible, so guilty; she had hurt them. She knew Twilight wouldn't be too bad, even soft as she was, but Applejack… she'd gone overboard, and she knew it. This was the one pony she could compete with, really had to work to win against. She'd never once backed down from a challenge, and while she and Fluttershy had known one another since their Cloudsdale school days, Applejack had come to hold a very special place in her heart.
"Pinkie. I’m... sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I—"
"Sorry?! You're sorry are you? Oh yes? Quite contrite, yes, I can see how very penitent you are, you filthy, crass, lowlife-deviant-beast!" Rarity errupted, unable to contain herself, ending the tirade with a screech. "You could have killed Applejack and Twilight both, and doomed us all! So help me—So. Help. Me—if harm comes to Sweetie Belle over your little psychotic run, I will personally skin you alive!"
Dash hung her head throughout the abuse, flinching as Rarity finished. A tear traced her cheek, falling to the grass. She was done being angry, and besides, Rarity was right. If anything happens to the fillies, I deserve it. I really do.
Pinkie looked over at the white Unicorn through hooded eyes, not a hint of a smile on her face. "Rarity. Hush." She turned her attention back to Dash, gazing down at the stooped Pegasus. Stepping forward, she reached out a hoof, lifting Rainbow’s chin upwards until she made eye contact with the bruised blue pony. "Dashie. You have to explain. You have to tell us why you did this.”
Dash, to her credit, rendered a very thorough, albeit very thoroughly butchered, account of her experience across the canyon, trying her best to convey the depth of Princess Luna's sincerity, how her serenity and assurance had carried Dash's doubts to conviction, the evidence of the sun-raising... and the Princess's final warning.
Rarity was not in a particularly forgiving mood; refusing to make eye contact with Dash whenever she looked her way and interjecting biting comments regarding the “mental instability of certain blue Pegasi, who may or may not be present, who may or may not be inclined to schedule an extended stay with a psychiatric facility in the very near future.”
Pinkie had her head tilted oddly to the side, an odd look of attentiveness to her posture. Dash had the strange but distinct feeling she was only half listening to the story; most of Pinkie’s focus seemed to be on her own body. When Dash had finished her story, Pinkie blinked, straightened, and pulled a whole-body shiver. "I believe you, Dashie. I think you did the only thing you thought you could do." A little smile began to slide back across her face. "Even if you did maybe doom all Equestria."
"Um..." Dash could think of absolutely nothing to say to that, so she turned to gaze at Fluttershy, who had been—while almost preternaturally unobtrusive—listening attentively; she wastaking in everything. She blinked, startled under the sudden scrutiny.
"Fluttershy?" Dash prompted.
"I… I don't know…" she muttered, glancing from the still livid Rarity, to the not-quite-happy Pinkie Pie, to the openly pleading Rainbow Dash; her oldest friend. "I… it's not the most important thing right now. Twilight, Applejack—they're hurt, and we need to get them care right away. We have to get them back to Ponyville."
Rarity snorted. "Very well done, Rainbow Dash, your brilliant plan worked marvelously," she said, her scorn searing into the Pegasus like acid.
Dash winced, but refused to look away from the Unicorn this time. Despite the previous wave of forlorn weariness, her ire was beginning to rise again.
"Nope!" chirped Pinkie Pie, crossing a good four feet in a single bounce, hopping between the two mares. "We're done with all that hurty stuff now, ‘k guys? And if anypony starts anything like that again, why I'll just tie her up with her own tail and drag her through every puddle of mud on the way back home," she finished, fixedly grinning in Rarity's face.
Rarity, for her part, blanched—as much as her alabaster coat could visibly allow—certain to her very soul that this pink… creature, would actually do it.
"Fine. Very well. Have it your way Pinkie," Rarity said, lifting her nose to the air, and turning lightly back towards Twilight. Her horn lit again, and both Twilight and Applejack began to float softly off the ground, their bodies cushioned in the magic. "We should move quickly; I'm not certain how long I can maintain this."
Pinkie and Fluttershy moved to the Unicorn, Pinkie snagging up Applejack’s hat where it lay on the ground. Flipping it into the air, it spun three times before falling to settle perfectly on her head. After a moment’s consideration, she cocked it roguishly to the side.
Fluttershy looked to Dash, who hadn't moved a muscle to follow them. "Aren't you coming with us?" she asked, already sounding sad, as though the question had answered itself.
The other Pegasus grimaced. "That's… probably not a good idea."
"I'll say," came a haughty barb.
Pinkie blinked and asked, "Why not Dashie?"
Fluttershy took a step towards Dash, her mouth open to speak.
Everypony froze as a shock of light and clap of thunder violently erupted in the distance, splitting the night in a brilliant bolt, casting a stark relief across the friends’ faces, distorting their frozen expressions with jagged shadows. A beam had shot straight upwards in a solid spear, like a beacon, drawing their eyes to the source; an ancient and dilapidated castle was revealed—startlingly close, its every window filled with the searing light, casting a surreal aspect on the surrounding forest for miles around.
Dash blinked, breaking the spell the incredible sight held her under. Gravely she turned her gaze on her friends. "That’s why. Guys? Guys!" she shouted, jerking them from their transfixed state. "You have to get AJ and Twilight home. Now."
Dash didn’t hear Fluttershy shout her name as she sped toward the castle; the source of this nightmare.
Days had passed, or so the clocks counted and the calendars assured.
The atmosphere of the usually light-hearted and joyful little town was now subdued and tense; the streets mostly empty, shops open but vacant. Nopony could remember a time like this. For the first day, the darkness had endured for twenty-four hours without break. A lone courier Pegasus arrived late in the natural hours of the first night after the disaster, meeting with the mayor behind closed doors, before leaving as abruptly as he came. Shortly after the mayor issued a proclamation of emergency; curfew was established, watches were set and directed toward the Everfree Forest, and travel outside the town’s borders was strongly discouraged. No announcements had been made regarding Princess Celestia.
The sun finally broke the horizon on the second day. Everypony cheered its rise, but their bursting celebration held a current of desperation. The weak cheer quickly stilled altogether as the ponies saw the rising orb was not the brilliant sun they knew so well, but cast its reddish-orange light fitfully, as though none too pleased to be making an appearance. Nor did it take its usual track through the sky; staying low to the horizon as it made a two-hour trek from rise to set. The moon mirrored its path like a silver guardian, drifting in parallel above the sun as it made its belabored journey.
The next day, the sun was up for nearly four hours. Everypony in town solemnly gathered to watch it rise; even the youngest foals roused from their uneasy slumber.
Twilight had regained consciousness with a mild concussion and had been released from the clinic with an order of bed rest. Applejack had been admitted to critical care; her broken rib and fractured foreleg left her heavily bandaged, with a prescription of pain medication she flatly refused to take—despite the constant, if passive, nagging she received from Fluttershy.
The five stayed together in the library for the most part, taking comfort in one another’s presence, if little else. Twilight maintained a brooding silence since she had awoke, settling a pervasive anxiety upon the general atmosphere.
Dash had not been seen since their parting in the forest, and it was anypony’s guess if she was alive or not. Her welfare had been as much a subject of discussion as her intentions.
In the weak light of the third day, Twilight spoke gravely to the assembled ponies. "Girls," she began, the word falling like the somber call to a counsel of war. "I've been thinking everything through, and there are few things I'm not confused about. There are far too many coincidences surrounding my coming here—about my research into the prophecy, and subsequent discoveries about the Elements of Harmony. I think… I think Princess Celestia knew this was going to happen. I can't get much farther than that with any assurance, but everything has lined up far too well for me to believe her hoof was absent from how things have unfolded. I can't... I don’t understand why she wasn't direct with me, or for that matter, bothered with me at all in procuring the Elements,” she went on, waving a hoof vaguely before her. “I’ve been having Spike send letters to the Princess three times a day, but either she’s not receiving them for some reason or... I don’t even want to consider the alternatives. But one thing is clear: I have to stay true to the Princess. She gave me a task, and it is unfulfilled. I have to go back into the forest, and try to get to the Elements."
The announcement was met with scattered, if half-hearted, protestations and the near-immediate reaction she had both feared and expected. They insisted, once again, on going with her; she had as little success in dissuading them as she had the first time.
"Um…" Twilight began with more hesitancy, "we have to discuss what happened with Dash, one more time. I want to believe that she was under some kind of compulsion, not in control of herself, as much as any of you... but after hearing everypony’s perspectives, I don't really think that's the case. I know you all feel betrayed; you've known her a lot longer than I have. But if we encounter her in there, and she tries to stop us again, I…" Twilight broke off, biting her lip. She knew what she had to say, even believed she was right, but giving voice to her intention to take Rainbow Dash down if need be, by any means necessary, pulled a string in her heart. It was true that she hadn't known the brash Pegasus long at all, but she'd come to feel as much a connection with her as she did with the still-loyal ponies sitting with her now. How these crazy ponies had come to claim such a place in her heart in such a short time, when all her life she'd barely given a second thought to social ties outside of the most common courtesies, was beyond her.
A delicate "Ahem" stirred Twilight from her musings, and she focused her attention to the white Unicorn.
"We all know what you're trying to say, dear, and as you said, you know as much as we do about what happened. What you may not be fully understanding is that we've all known Rainbow Dash much longer than you have, and as such, her vile betrayal cuts all the deeper. The others may still have reservations—though how you can Applejack, after how badly she beat you, I'll never know—but I for one, have none. When I see her again, I will attend to her personally,” Rarity finished primly, the glint in her eyes bespeaking her tightly reined fury at the absent Pegasus.
Pinkie spoke from where she lay on the floor, not raising her head from its resting position on her hooves, “You’re wrong, everypony. I know you are. I get why Twilight won’t believe me; she doesn’t know. But you Applejack; and you Rarity; an’ Fluttershy too. If I told you my tail was twitch-a-twitchin’ right now, you’d all dive for cover.” Applejack flinched a bit at this, sending a reflexive glance to the ceiling as Pinkie continued, “And I’m telling you that my Pinkie-sense told me Dashie wasn’t lying. She was telling the truth.”
Rarity was biting her lip and looking like she’d dearly love to argue the point, but Twilight got there first, her eyebrows raised high into her mane. “Pinkie-sense?” she asked, looking around at the group.
A weary Applejack turned to the confused Unicorn with a deadpan expression. “Long story, sugarcube. Anyhow, Ah been thinkin’ ‘bout all this my own way, ‘n see here: me ‘n Rainbow been close for ages now, ever since she came down from Cloudsdale to help Fluttershy set up her cottage. It may seem like we argue more’n otherwise, but honest truth is that’s just our way, how we ‘spress ourselves. Ain’t neither one of us sharp on that mushy, frou-frou stuff, so we’ve always shown how we felt with jibes an’ horsin’ about. Camaraderie type-a-thing. Wouldn’t expect yall ta understand that, Rarity,” Applejack snapped, casting a glance at Rarity, where a repugnant look was painted on the Unicorn’s face for all to see. “Ah know what yer thinkin’, but we ain’t discussin’ it, so you can wipe that look offa yer face right now.”
She turned to Twilight. “Listen here, Twilight, cuz here’s what matters: Dash ain’t no traitor. It ain’t in her. She cares more about her friends than she does her own life. ‘Bout this time last year, Fluttershy an’ Dash an’ me were hoofin’ it about the back country, up north ‘round the bend of the Everfree, just explorin’. We took a rest in a scenic li’l meadow we happened upon. Fluttershy an’ Ah were havin’ a drink at the creek runnin’ through, when we heard this huge crack behind us. An ol’ dead tree had given way, an’ was loomin’ over us on its way down fast. Dash had been flyin’ about up above an’ saw it ‘fore we did. Just as we’re about to get it, Dash slammed inta us from the air, pushin’ us clear. That tree came down in a almighty crash... an for what felt like forever, Ah thought Dash hadn’t made it out. She did o’ ‘course, an’ was mighty pleased with herself, lemme tell ya. But if she hadn’t? She still woulda’ done it. Ah know that sure’s anything. In the forest Ah... Ah got carried away—swept up in everythin’. Ah should’ve heard her out...”
Fluttershy nodded her agreement from her place on the couch pillows.
Twilight and Rarity shared a glance, their reservations wavering but unchanged.
The divide in group consensus tacitly ignored, Twilight began to lay out the logistics for the trip.
On the fitful dawn of the fourth day, Twilight and Applejack decided they had recovered enough to act on their plan. Fluttershy, however, was none too pleased. Applejack was still heavily bandaged, but flatly refused to be left behind. She limped along stoically beside a grim-faced Twilight.
The group gathered what few supplies they felt were needed, and packed them into their respective saddle bags. They had trotted past the edge of town when they heard the warning cries shouted from the posted lookouts on the roofs behind them. Stopping to watch something breaking from the canopy of the Everfree Forest, it soon became clear that the odd sight was a group of Pegasi flying in a tight formation, headed right for the town. They landed some short distance in front of the group, conversing briefly amongst themselves in muted tones, before trotting up as a unit towards the five friends.
A tight-fitting weave of black and dark blue covered the Pegasi; emblazoned bolts of lightning crossed vertically over their shoulders and met at the chest in a‘V’ shape. Three were large, barrel-chested stallions, evidenced by their size and the squareness of jaw. The others were smaller; obviously young mares by their graceful lines and sinuous movement, though their coat-tight uniforms revealed the angular lines of taut and powerful frames. They held about them, one and all, an air of tight discipline and singular purpose as they trotted in formation towards the friends.
A gasp came as one from the Ponyville cadre; the lead Pegasus mare had broken off from the others as they halted, the leader continuing on alone. Raising a hoof, she had pushed back her goggles and pulled back the cowl. Magenta eyes regarded the group, still shocked to silence; though not at the unveiling of her face. They had recognized the leader for who she was the moment she broke from the other uniformed Pegasi; the way she moved, the cyan wings, and her rainbow colored mane. All were easily distinguishable and unmistakable.
Twilight’s eyes were large as the lead pony pulled her mask off, revealing the Pegasus that had occupied so many of her tormented thoughts. She stepped forward with no small amount of apprehension to meet the steadily approaching rainbow-maned pony...
"Rainbow Dash," Twilight said flatly, sweeping her with a cool look from hoof to laid-back ears.
Dash pulled to a stop before Twilight, giving her a small nod and a carefully neutral expression. “Twilight,” she acknowledged, before glancing away and stepping around her, leaving the bookish unicorn momentarily nonplussed.
Coming to a halt in front of Applejack, Dash’s composure suddenly fell away; her eyes alight with conflicted emotion as she took in the workpony’s injuries. “AJ... Applejack... I’m so, so sorry... I—”
AJ shot a tight little grin at the faltering Pegasus. “Lucky shot was all that was, sugarcube,” she quipped dismissively. The two mares stood staring at one another; the light smile spread to Rainbow as, for just a moment the world’s troubles fell away from them. The few words were enough to bring the two to every understanding required between them. The soft smiles slowly took on the character of familiar, challenging grins as they leaned in to press their foreheads together in mock challenge—stylized goggles meeting worn Stetson—before chuckling and stepping back.
Rainbow cast a look around, taking in Pinkie and Fluttershy, and throwing them a friendly wink. Rarity had been glowering since Dash had appeared, looking as though she wanted to say something harsh and was struggling to contain herself. Dash barely spared her a glance before turning back to Twilight. “Twi, it’s time to head up to the castle. Princess Luna will explain everything.”
Twilight blinked. “Who?”
Special thanks go out to Sagebrush, Sali, Fluttershy and Stormchaser
An angry ocherous sun drifted slowly overhead, the immense moon hovering in tandem directly above it as it mirrored the fiery orb’s painfully low arch across the horizon. Though its light was gentle and warm, the sun’s alien appearance was far from comforting, shining principally as a reminder of the dystopian circumstances that had swept so suddenly across Equestria. A steady wind had been blowing throughout the unnaturally short day, sweeping in from the south over the far distant mountains. It came in hard and low across the plains, bending down the long grasses and carrying vagrant leaves in its wide wake. Whipping on through the idyllic borough of Ponyville, it buffeted the two groups of ponies standing just a short distance outside the little town, ruffling their manes and tails as they silently faced one another.
One of the groups stood tightly together, waiting stoically. Their postures were alert, though not visibly impatient. These ponies were uniformly dressed from head to hoof in the stylized black and purple designs of a flight suit, dual-designed for high speed maneuvering and aerial combat. Needless to say, they stood out of the common herd.
Most of the tension in the air, however, was reserved for the opposing group, which consisted of five brightly colored and nervously clustered fillies, conversing with one errant member of the uniformed Pegasi, whose mane was an unruly shock of rainbow hues.
“Princess Luna will explain everything,” Rainbow Dash asserted, her tone clipped.
Twilight blinked, her confusion temporarily calling a full-stop to all higher cognitive functions at hearing any other name but her beloved mentor’s associated with the royal title. “Who?”
“It’s… kind of a crazy story, but c’mon, I’ll explain what I can on the way,” Dash said, before turning to address the unfamiliar Pegasi she’d arrived with. “Okay guys, er—Wing, you’ve got your orders.”
The five imposing Pegasi gave a series of nods before crouching down and launching themselves into the air, erupting off the ground with a power and flair that the five friends had previously only seen in their resident speed-demon. The Wing jinked around one another on their way up to cruising altitude, then catching the strong wind, they fell into a tight formation and took off at an impressive speed toward the Archback mountain range far in the distance.
Twilight was watching the quickly receding Pegasi with a small, worried frown. “Orders?” she inquired, struggling to rein in her suspicions. While attempting to give Dash the benefit of the doubt, this new development was making her more commiserative efforts increasingly difficult; not to mention the fact that, despite her previous bluster and all of her outward displays of confidence, Dash’s new appearance was rather... imposing. Compounding her unease was the fact that this Pegasus had actually attacked her once. Sure, she was somewhat clumsy, and had knocked herself about on more than one occasion, but nopony had ever actually hit her before. Real violence was something one heard about from the lower streets of Canterlot, not something actually encountered in the Princess’ School for Gifted Unicorns. The admission stung, but she had to concede, at least to herself, that at this point she was more than a bit afraid of Rainbow Dash.
Utterly oblivious to Twilight’s concerns, a fierce little grin appeared on Rainbow’s muzzle. “Heh, yeah. I’m the Captain of Princess Luna’s Shadowbolts! They’re the best fliers in all of Equestria, and I’m the Captain!” she restated, just in case anypony had missed that particular item on the first pass.
Fluttershy ducked her head, raising a fore-hoof pensively off the ground. “But... Rainbow Dash, what about the Wonderbolts?” she asked, trying reflexively to hide behind bangs that were being blown over her shoulder. Under different circumstances, the timid little dance would have been amusing, but Dash had known Fluttershy long enough not to discount her comments when she mustered up the nerve to be heard, and the seemingly innocuous question was true to form.
Dash rapidly back-peddled. “Um... well, yeah. Okay, they’re still awesome, but this is totally different. I still want to be a Wonderbolt someday, totally. But this? With Luna? I’m the Captain of a Princess’s elite team! I mean, come on, how cool is that?”
“And what... orders are they to fulfill, precisely?” Rarity interjected, refusing to be sidetracked.
“They’re headed out as official envoys. To other nations way beyond our borders. Some mountains way up north to talk to the Griffons, the Deer nations to the south, even the Wolves somewhere west! I didn’t even know Wolves were still around; I thought they’d gone extinct or something.”
Twilight, unable to contain her soapbox impulses, began to correct Dash on the finer points. “The Wolf Tribes aren’t actually extinct, Rainbow. In fact, they used to hold control over huge swaths of disjointed territories all across the continent, according to the histories. They even had their claws in a large part of southwestern Equestria, from what I could decipher of their old maps. Their long term weakness came about from their innate and fierce independence. They would gather in tribes, but rarely established townships of any sort beyond winter camps. Much like the Dragons in their decentralization actually...” Dash gave a little cough. Twilight, in full-swing lecture mode, cocked one eyebrow curiously before continuing, “In any case, when Princess Celestia stepped forward to lay claim to the ponydom we know today, the Wolves secluded themselves within the huge forests of the far northwestern reaches. Apparently they had always abhorred the notion of central leadership.”
Applejack had limped up to stand closer to Dash. “Whatta y’all mean, ‘envoys’ sugarcube?” she asked, the pair tuning out Twilight’s oration.
“Princess Luna is sending out contacts to the other nations, asking for representatives to come and meet with her. She wants to talk with the higher-ups all over, mostly about treaties an’ history an’ stuff I guess. But look, let’s talk on the way, alright?”
That said, Dash was fixed to set off at a brisk trot, but eased after just a few steps, noting that Applejack was limping along stoically at her best speed. Though she hid the pain it caused her impressively well, Dash’s sharp eye caught her friend’s strained movements. Saying nothing, she slowed her pace to an easy canter.
“So, okay, look...” she began, “this is gonna be a lot to take in all at once, but just hold off until I get through it, okay?” Dash said to the group as they moved in the direction of the forest line in the distance. “So to start, Princess Luna is Princess Celestia’s little sister, and...” she broke off, grimacing as she caught the sound of a set of hooves abruptly stumbling to a halt. Twilight was standing stock-still, staring at her incredulously as the gears spun furiously in the little Unicorn’s head, working to make all the possible connections to the prophecies she had been pouring over so obsessively these past few days.
Dash sighed. “It’s gonna be like that huh?” She gestured with a padded, black foreleg to the path ahead. “Can we at least keep moving while we plow through this? I’d like to get there sometime today.”
Twilight appeared to make several attempts to speak, cutting herself off at what could be assumed to be the beginnings of syllables, before simply shaking her head and stepping back in with the group.
“Right, okay. So, Luna is an Alicorn and Celestia’s little sister,” Dash began anew, grinning over as Twilight noticeably bit her lip. “And they had a... um, ‘falling out’ a long time ago. Celestia sorta banished Luna to the moon for a thousand years.” She pulled ahead yet again, unsurprised as her ears swiveled back to register that her hooves were now making the only sounds of travel along the packed earth. The entire little herd had come to a full stop in unison, staring at her. Dash released an irritated little groan as everypony found their voice at the same time, except, she noted, for Twilight, who was frowning thoughtfully.
“To the... moon?! That’s horrible...”
“Her own li’l sister?”
“For one thousand years?!”
“That must have been a huge slingshot!”
“Oooookay. Well, I guess we’ll make it there sometime tomorrow,” Dash quipped sarcastically, her stylized goggles glinting in her mane as she snapped her tail. “Can we please keep moving?”
The ponies shared a look between them, and once more began to follow the Pegasus’ lead.
“Right,” Dash began, again, her tone a grim promise of a short temper becoming dangerously frayed. “So. Luna. Alicorn. Celestia’s sister. They had a big ‘thing’ a long time ago, like a thousand-year long time ago, and apparently it turned pretty ugly. Princess Luna was kinda vague-ish on the details, but she said she ended up locked in the moon for all that time.”
Twilight had clearly been waiting for Dash to draw breath, and pounced into the breach with didactic abandon, rapidly fitting the pieces together. “Wait-wait-wait. Why did they disagree? What happened?” It all made sense, but Dash was clearly badly misinformed of the proper recounting.
“Uh... to be honest, I don’t know much more than the basics. I only spent a while with her, and we talked about other stuff. Then she had me go off an’ meet with those other Pegasuses an’ bring em back to the castle. We spent the last couple of days practicing together. They’re really, really good! I mean, not as good as me, obviously, but they’re all top fliers. We’ve been sharing techniques and practicing for days!” Her tone grew lighter as she recalled the long hours of drills, the new tricks learned, and the shared experience of talented fliers with such dynamic skill sets.
“Rainbow, give me one reason to believe you,” Twilight demanded, jarring Dash from her wistful preoccupation.
“Gee, Twi, I dunno, how ‘bout that?” she said in retort, waving a hoof at the sun and rolling her eyes.
Twilight stomped her hoof in a preemptive declaration. “Not good enough. There are a hundred possible explanations for why the sun could be up, and a thousand as to why it looks so... so sick.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say here Twilight. I don’t think it matters what I tell you if you won’t believe me anyway. I know you’re freaking out right now, I do, I get that. But what do you want to do? You want to go to the castle, talk with the one pony who actually knows what the hay’s happening? Well, that’s what we’re doing, so get off my mane, will ya?”
“I... Rainbow, I just need to know... where’s Princess Celestia? Is she okay?”
“...I dunno, Twi. That’s... you’ll have to ask Luna,” Dash asserted in a tone that clearly implied she wasn’t prepared to discuss the matter further. Twilight unexpectedly subsided for the time being, somewhat surprising the Pegasus, though she wasn’t about to complain. A silence fell upon the group.
They had been travelling now for some time at a fair trot. The forest loomed not far ahead, and the short day was nearing its close. Everypony was occupied with their own thoughts—ranging from barely restrained and frantic, to one particular quietly smoldering grudge.
Dash looked back, noting that Rarity was trailing a bit behind, her face covered in a frown. She had been seemingly removed from the proceedings about her thus far. Dash slowed her canter, moving back to intercept her, mentally preparing to bite the horseshoe. As she let her pace slow, the others drifted to pass ahead. As she slid by Applejack, the orange mare smirked over at her. “Nice threads there, Rainbow. Bit tight, aren’t they?”
Dash gaped at her, blushing right up to her ears. “Where the hay did that come from AJ?” she stammered, utterly thrown for a moment.
Fortunately Applejack wasn’t intent on embarrassing her friend—well, not just yet. She cast a quick glance to the cyan pony’s destination and said, “Yer doin’ the right thing Dash. Ah know you know how she feels, an that ain’t gonna make it any easier. Just do yer best an’ talk from the heart. Try to be the bigger pony.” She winked, then quickened her pace a bit, moving up next to Fluttershy, and began a low conversation in tones of reassurance with the little Pegasus.
Rainbow huffed at the antics of her rustic friend—When did she get so darn unpredictable?—before recalling her current little mission.
With a deep breath, Dash matched pace with the smoldering fashionista. Trotting beside her in silence, the moment unfolded uncomfortably. She had just been getting used to the notion of waiting the Unicorn out when Rarity began speaking suddenly, startling her.
“Rainbow Dash. This isn’t easy. I meant what I said before, and I still don’t know what to think. I do know how loyal you are, and that makes this all the more confusing. I’ve never had cause to question you before, and to have you do what you did... so suddenly... It still feels like you betrayed us all. Betrayed me.”
Dash grimaced. “Rarity, look... what happened at the bridge that night, you think I wanted that? That was the last thing I wanted to do, and it scared the hay outta me! I feel awful that I hurt AJ and Twilight, but I didn’t know what else to do! Everything happened so fast, and Twilight was going to take off no matter what I said an’ get herself killed!” Her brash tone softened as she continued, “It was my fault; if I were better with words, if I could have explained it right...”
Rarity huffed. She hated to admit it, but she could understand how Rainbow Dash felt, without condoning her actions. She grudgingly said as much. “I’m just so worried, Rainbow Dash. What if you’re wrong? You’ve sided against your friends, and for what? Somepony with crazy stories that we’ve never met before? Have you even considered what is going to happen to us when we reach this ‘castle’ if Twilight Sparkle is right?”
Dash hesitated. “I... Honestly? No, not really, Rarity. Y’know why? Cuz if I thought for a second anything bad was gonna happen to you up there, you think I’d let you go? You think I’d be taking you there? Pony feathers Rarity, that’s why I did what I did in the first place! To protect you guys! You didn’t see what I saw that night. When you all went back to Ponyville, I flew towards the castle and watched. That light was shooting out everywhere, totally randomly! It plowed through trees and stones like nothing. It even tore through the walls of the castle once or twice, an’ almost took me out a couple times!” Dash exclaimed, her eyes large and voice animated with the recounting.
Rarity grimaced, but there was little doubting Dash’s sincerity. That filly could as easily glide through charm school as pass off a duplicitous tale with that much enthusiasm. Still... just because she believed she was in the right, by no means meant she actually was. Not to mention Twilight; an educated and proper unicorn—Well, for the most part at least—the magical protegé of the Princess herself, born and raised in fabulous Canterlot itself, the glowing gem of Equestria. Why, if I could get my latest line into those boutiques... Rarity lightly shook her mane, returning her thoughts to the present. It would seem she was at something of an impasse. She could only hope for the best, and prepare for the worst, but she didn’t have to be happy about it. Kicking a stone along the path, she sent it skittering off into the grass. And that insufferable wind certainly isn’t helping matters, she thought, fretting over her mane for the thousandth time, and trying not to show it.
Rainbow had been casting quick looks at her for the past minute, waiting for a response. Rarity knew that what she said next could cut the Pegasus to the quick, and it frankly pained her to see the brash young speedster so unconventionally vulnerable...
Struggling to put on a bright smile, she turned to face Rainbow directly. “You did what you thought best Rainbow Dash. There’s no point fretting over frayed silk; if we stick together, I’m sure everything will be alright.”
Dash broke into a huge smile, too relieved to say more than, “Thanks Rares.”
Rarity bumped her shoulder delicately against Dash. “Though you simply must let me do something about that outfit. Far too utilitarian for a mare of your build.” They shared a laugh over that, trotting down the road.
The entrance to the forbidding forest was just ahead, when night fell suddenly over the ponies. Rarity released a startled, “What!” while Fluttershy let out an almighty “Meep!”. Their world turned dark beneath an enormous shadow, and the rushing thunder of gale-force winds roared high overhead. Everypony, aside from an enamoured pink filly who simply stared into the sky with a long coo of admiration, hunched to the ground, an instinctive throwback to a more wild past, and looked upwards. Fluttershy entered that very special level of panic reserved for just one thing in the wide and scary world—Dragons. Huge Dragons. Three of them, gliding across the sky in a wide triangle formation, arching lazily above them. Although, to be fair, anything a dragon wasn’t doing fearsomely, they seemed to go about lazily. It was as though any action that didn’t call them to the mind of battle was done with a laconic disregard of affairs beneath their attention.
Chuckling at the wide eyed expressions of her prostrate friends, Pinkie noted that Fluttershy had gone into full emergency lock-down. After a moment of experimentally nudging her to no response, Pinkie just giggled at the silly-filly’s antics and burrowed underneath her, rising with the insensate Pegasus stiff as a board across her back, a fair amount of earth crumbling from her fluffy mane.
The trek through the forest was largely uneventful, the notorious bridge in full repair, and the castle loomed as they broke through the tree line, just as the sun was lowering behind the horizon. Situated in an circular clearing was the first clear patch they’d seen since entering the ancient forest. While in heavy disrepair, the monolithic structure held a feeling of old majesty and sorrowful nostalgia. The stalwart masonry of the great outer walls was cracked here and there, vines tracing about haphazardly. The great encircling wall obscured the lower portions of the castle and courtyard beyond, but it was clear a large village could easily fit within its bounds—and apparently once had, if the nearly fossilized ruts in the road were anything to go by.
In contrast to the ruin’s long-abandoned appearance, evenly distanced globes of soft moonlight were glowing, magically contained and suspended along the outer walls, as if in preparation for the advancing darkness. Passing through the arching portal, Twilight quickly calculated it to be wide enough for at least fifteen ponies walking shoulder-to-shoulder. Dash turned left on a side path of the sprawling courtyard that curved into the great shadow cast by the castle, her uniform making her outlines hard to distinguish. Leading them toward the trickling sound of running water, their destination obscured by the curve of the castle itself, she grinned to herself as her friends gaped about them in amazement.
Trotting round the bend, even Dash drew to a shuddering halt at the sight before them. On the far side of the clearing, on the bank of a flowing brook rose a grove of elegantly placed maple trees, their leaves gently rustling in the soft breeze. Just before the copse sat Luna; her tail curled primly about her, contemplatively focused on a table before her. This, however, was not what drew the collective shock and ragged gasp from the six little ponies. Dwarfing both board and Goddess, great wings tightly furled, body sprawled out behind him, the tip of a massive tail flicking idly, and long-necked head resting against one raised fist... was a dragon. A truly huge dragon. His silver-green scales glinted with his movements in a youthful shine, belying the great age necessary to achieve such a size; massive even by the standards of his kind.
As if this weren’t enough, movement had caught the ponies’ eyes, and the friends stood frozen as the heads of two more dragons swiveled towards them, their light green colors blending perfectly into the dips of the natural hillside where they had lain motionless. The two lay on either side of the meadow a good distance from the Alicorn and ancient dragon in the center, piercing the ponies with a predatory gaze.
The two at the center of the meadow affected not to notice, as they continued their conversation. “Much has changed my old friend,” Luna was saying in melancholy tones to the ancient dragon, the clear ring of her voice carrying with ease across the meadow’s sprawl.
“Indeed...” he rumbled in reply. The baritone of his voice struck as poorly suited to pony ears, rumbling forth in a depth more akin to stone and earth. “And all else aside, it is wonderful to have you back with us. Your sister always did have finer relations with the more... ‘established’ beings. She had little inclination to appreciate the nomadic ways of the Enclave, nor the fascination with the deep mysteries that you always showed. Do you remember the last time we plumbed the Nova Solaris quasar? We stood upon the highest peak of Grayscale Mountain for four days and four nights...” the pair shared a fond smile of remembrance, lapsing for a moment into another language as they reminisced on days long past into the ages.
“Hah!” Luna cried out suddenly. “Checkmate you scaly old buzzard!” she gloated, laughing joyfully.
“Little Princess, you wound me!” the dragon rumbled melodramatically. “Using the nostalgia of days gone by to distract an old friend!” he bemoaned, before erupting into a laugh that shook the pebbles underhoof. After a moment he sobered, his great eyes hooded. The atmosphere changed.
Solemnly now, he spoke. “How is this so little Luna? I’ve often pondered this in your long absence. You have known my father, and his before him, and I am myself now ancient beyond the understanding of near any other race of this world. And yet... still you laugh with me, as a friend. You were by my side as I learned to fly, when I could nearly fit under your wing. My father told me many of the tales of his youth when you were by his side as well. You sat on the Council of Elders. You stood as ambassador for the Wolves and the Deer when they seemed destined to annihilate one another. You raise the moon, you weave the stars, and the Dreaming is your realm. What strange magics do you wield, Goddess of the Night, that we mortals so easily fool ourselves into feeling your equals?”
Luna stared up solemnly at the scaled giant, her eyes lost for a moment from the touch of Equestria. “The Dreaming is not my realm old friend. I have some weight in it, true, but that burden rests on the shoulders of one far older than gods and time. He is of the Endless, and I speak of him as you now speak to me—in the barest of comprehension. I am not so great as you would imagine me. There are depths that are beyond me, and I take comfort in this little land, with its easy joy and bright laughter... now more so than ever...” The moment stretched out in silent contemplation as the leaves fell and the creek sang.
The massive dragon glanced around, taking in the halting approach of yet more diminutive equines as they slid out of the castle’s shadow, reluctantly following a single tiny mare in black. “My goodness, Luna, you’ve become quite the social butterfly in your old age,” he quipped, chuckling lightly. Luna smirked at him and briefly peeked out her tongue, giggling a bit herself.
“Well, I suppose I shall excuse myself while you attend to things. My wing-brothers and I will be at the lake, should you need us before sunrise.”
Luna smiled gently, with great fondness. “It really is wonderful to see you again. Thank you for coming so quickly. You don’t know what a comfort it is to have you close in uncertain times.”
The dragon bowed his head, Luna rejoined with a playful curtsy, and he slowly rose, the other two dragons stretching their wings and preparing to take flight with him. He turned piercing eyes toward the ponies, seeking out the distinctively purple mare. “Regard your charge well, little Unicorn. He is precious to our kind. To me.”
Leaving no room for contemplation or response, he launched himself up into the sky, the gale of his wings tearing at the manes of the diminutive equines. Sliding above the castle walls and out of sight, the two others with him, they disappeared into the encroaching dusk.
The ponies assembled before the goddess began a deep bow, barring Rainbow Dash and Twilight, though for reasons entirely mutually exclusive. Even Fluttershy had revived herself. Luna’s expression lost any hint of mirth as she regarded them. Rainbow coughed from behind a hoof, muttering surreptitiously, “Guys, don’t do that; she really hates it.”
On cue, Luna grumbled discontentedly; “Must everypony keep doing that? Such affectations were rare one thousand years ago, but now it seems common place. Ugh.”
Twilight, who had resisted the ingrained urge to prostrate herself, stared hard at the midnight-blue Alicorn, and wasted no time plunging in.
“Where is Princess Celestia?” she demanded, her voice loud and ringing across the meadow.
Luna met her gaze evenly. “I do not know.”
“You liar!” Twilight screamed, losing grip of her frayed composure entirely and stomping both hooves down furiously into the grass. “You’ve done something with her! I know it! I read the prophecies, I know what you really are! You’re Nightmare Moon, the evil mare of darkness, and you’re trying to take over! Well I won’t let you! You think you can trot in and take over just like that? You really think everypony is just going to stand for it?!”
Dash had recoiled from Twilight’s initial outburst, but now her ruby eyes were narrowed, her muzzle pursed. A look of tightly contained anger writ across her face as her wings began to unfurl from her body.
Luna’s expression never cracked a hair. She continued to gaze serenely down at the raging purple Unicorn for a moment, before asking, “Indeed? And just what, little one, do you intend to do about it?”
The fire inside Twilight’s chest flickered. “I... um... I know what we need to find, and when we do, I’ll banish your sorry flank back to the moon for ANOTHER thousand years! The Elements of Harmony took care of you once, and they can do it again!” Twilight thought she had done a rather fine job of hiding the uncertainty in her voice, while the little autodidact in her head pranced about, shrilly informing her that she was currently threatening a Goddess.
Luna managed to make the rolling of her eyes appear almost dainty. “And the Elements? Where do you intend to find them? How will you use them?” she asked, sardonic amusement alive in her voice as she humored her sister’s pupil... who appeared to be ever so slightly cracked. Celestia always did have a taste for eccentric characters, she thought, mildly entertained. Her gaze hardened as she continued, “And most importantly, how do you know about the Elements of Harmony?” Her eyes glinting emerald in the last rays of the setting red sun, she put Twilight to task.
Twilight simply was not prepared for this. Being questioned rationally by the psychotic monster she’d seen at the Summer Sun Celebration? Not to mention said monster having hit upon nearly every weak point in her plans... she stammered, fumbling for a response.
Luna spoke coldly in the awkward silence. “Twilight Sparkle. The power you seek... is beyond your understanding. The Elements of Harmony are perhaps the single most potent force on this plane. With them, you would have the power to level mountains, acidify oceans, and scorch the earth of entire continents. Is that what you want?” she asked, pausing a moment. “My sister once used them, at great cost to herself. You see, the Elements choose their bearers. It is not the other way around. Not even for gods. Understand this: my sister wished for us to rule together. I wished for us to not rule at all.” Luna shrugged lightly. “That was the heart of our disagreement; a reminder of the inexorable twilight between us, the divide of night and day. In near all else we stood in harmony. To provide the peace and abundance our little ponies needed to flourish together... we already do this! By our very existence! There is no need for the constant reminder of an imposed order by a ‘royal’ presence. Does that make any sense to you? Can you try to understand, just this, without judgement?” Luna asked seriously, staring down into Twilight’s wide violet eyes.
Twilight Sparkle had never been so conflicted in her life. Emotionally, her frustration was boiling over. She wanted to denounce every word this creature was speaking as lies and spit at what must be twisted half-truths. But... she couldn’t. Not really, not with any intellectual honesty. She hadn’t heard a single thing that crossed her analytical compass negatively. Though even this meager admission felt like a betrayal of the most important being in her life: her Princess... she could not bring herself to betray her own senses and reason... and so she whispered, “Yes.”
Luna nodded, “Very good little one,” she said, her horn suddenly glowing as points of light began to materialize about her near the ground. “In that case, why don’t you hold onto these for the time being.” With a final surge and blinding flash, five stone orbs came to a rest on the soft grass, each with a unique sigil upon it. The Elements of Harmony.
Chapter 3 - “Evidence”
Chapter 5 - “Bereavement”
Rainbow Dash lay atop the highest tower of a hidden castle, deep within the vast forest of Everfree. Legs curled comfortably underneath her, she gazed up to the night sky that cradled an immense moon. The smooth tile felt warm beneath her, and she drew in a deep breath of the cool night air. Her mind was unusually focused and still as she took in the beauty her vantage offered. It was strange... lately she’d been finding much more pleasure in the nighttime than she ever had before. The pinpricks of brilliance that dotted the sky were far more vivid than she’d realized, and the moon... the waxing moon now stirred something deeply inside of her, firing her blood almost as much as flight at breakneck speeds.
Despite the serene atmosphere, her thoughts were deeply troubled. Nothing was what it used to be. Things used to be simple. She had her friends, her dreams, and the sky. Now everything was getting so... complicated. She was used to tolerating the dislike of some ponies—those jerks in flight camp coming quickly to mind—but not trusting her? On the one hoof, she knew she had done the right thing those days ago on the cliff-side. She had saved her friends’ lives, of that she had no doubt, but their reservations stung deeply. Especially when they tried to hide it. Like Rarity.
She grimaced as an unwelcome thought occurred: Maybe... maybe it’s me. I was pretty excited about the whole Shadowbolts thing. Do they think that means I don’t care about them anymore? About what’s going on? Still... damn it, Rarity was such a mule! she thought plaintively, her muzzle crinkling. Did she think I couldn’t tell she wasn’t being for real? That I’m so dumb that I couldn’t tell she was just humoring me? As angry as the thought made her, and as good as that indignant anger felt, she just couldn’t hold on to it. After everything else, the most cutting feeling bearing down on her was that she was driving a wedge between the ponies she cared about the most.
Not to mention Twilight Sparkle... she didn’t know what to make of the bookworm at this point. The way she’d acted with Luna was just... nuts. Sure, the Celestia-gone-missing thing was freaky as hell, but Luna was not Nightmare Moon, and the Unicorn just couldn’t seem to get that through her head. Luna even gave Twilight the Elements, and then healed up AJ! What more does she want?! Dash bit her lip; she was really starting to hope that Twilight wasn’t going to keep this up... even the brash Pegasus couldn’t imagine anypony getting all up in Celestia’s face like that, and she was worried Twilight was going to start pushing her luck.
Dash rose with a nicker of irritation, shaking herself brusquely; she knew the best way to clear her head. Spreading her wings, she crouched low before launching herself with powerful hind legs straight over the precipice. As it always did, her heart gave a sudden lurch, a pulse of fear just begging to be overpowered by the flood of adrenaline rushing through her veins. With a snap of her wings, she spiralled upwards into the air. As the wind rushed through her mane, she truly pitied the ponies who would never know the joy, the freedom, of flight. She privately doubted that even other Pegasi had quite the same intimacy with the sky that she did. She could almost see the flowing currents, the pockets of pressure ebbing around one another as they shifted in density. It wasn’t as though she recognized it by the signs and inferred the conditions, like they taught you to in the Weather Corps—she felt it.
Before she knew it, she was high above the castle, hovering idly on an updraft and looking out across the expanse of forest in all directions. She alit carefully on a string of cloud. It was a wispy stratus, so insubstantial it could barely support her, thin enough to glow brightly in the moonlight as if lit from the inside. Pegasus eyes are extremely sharp—though she didn’t recall her night vision ever being quite so acute before—so she could just make out the form of a lone Dragon stretched out by the bank of a lake in the far distance. Dragon eyes must be keener still, for as he turned his head toward her, she was pierced by the certainty that he was gazing straight up into her ruby eyes. Her blood froze in a moment of instinctual terror before she snapped out of it, flicking her ears in irritation.
She rose to her fullest height, puffing her chest out in the most impressive pose she could manage, and let out a squawk as the fragile cloud gave out beneath her. She recovered quickly, almost sure she’d put enough spiral into her descent before leveling off to make the move look intentional. Despite herself, she cast a glance to the far-off form of the dragon. She couldn’t be sure, but it looked like his shoulders were quaking in... Is he laughing at me?! That’s it. I’m outta here, she thought, decidedly not pouting as she pulled a sharp bank, settling into a comfortable glide back in the general direction of the castle. As she descended in a lazy spiral, she could make out Luna and Fluttershy among the copse of trees, walking sedately along the bank of the stream. Lights were glowing from the windows of two rooms in the castle, and she wondered who else was up and about.
Twilight restlessly paced her room, the sharp crack of hooves on the bare stone was becoming grating. She grit her teeth and uttered a frustrated groan. She cast what was perhaps the thousandth glance at the pile of stone orbs resting on the small bed which, aside from a desk, was the only furniture in the room. These things are the Elements of Harmony? And where in Equestria was the sixth? And how the hay do they work? She had spent the last several hours focused intently on examining the stones, exhausting her fairly impressive repertoire of analytical and diagnostic spells, all to no avail. The most she had been able to ascertain was that these relics were extremely old, and highly potent in... something. They were more magic than stone, but their properties, aside from being individually unique, were unlike anything she’d ever encountered before. Whether or not these turned out to be the Elements of Harmony, they were incredibly significant artifacts in their own right, possibly among the most powerfully imbued items on record. Twilight was a very clever pony, and like most clever ponies, her inability to crack a vitally important puzzle was making her increasingly inclined to throw a tantrum.
The night was growing late, but the little pony cantering about her head showed no sign of slowing, shutting up, or ending the maddening circles it was prancing, despite how furiously she cursed herself. She had returned from an extended ‘discussion’ with Luna earlier in the evening, and those thoughts were the worst of the lot. In so many ways, she was reminded of Princess Celestia, and not merely in physical resemblance—Alicorns are fairly distinctive in appearance after all—but in sheer presence. She took the forced resemblance to her beloved mentor as an almost personal affront.
Her mind cast back, yet again, to the discussion. Luna had sat so primly; no matter what accusations Twilight had slammed at her, she just stayed so... calm. It was not only infuriating, it was downright suspicious, was what it was! Nopony should remain so unruffled when the order of Equestria had been turned up by the tail! The conversation—more like a lecture—had not unfolded in the way she would have liked...
Twilight stood before Luna, gaping as the stone orbs, supposedly the legendary Elements of Harmony, drifted over to settle on the grass at her hooves, released from Luna’s magic. She blinked, Five? There are only five!
Narrowing her eyes, she looked back up to the smug, self-righteous Alicorn sitting before her. “Sooo sorry ‘Princess’, you can’t trick me that easily. There are six Elements of Harmony, not five dumb rocks,” she spat.
Luna raised a single brow at the irate filly.
“Oh. Well then, I tried. Good luck with all that,” came the sardonic reply.
Twilight bit her lip, but refused to take the bait, forcing her muddled wits to work once again. Pouring over what Luna had said just moments ago, she switched tracks and attacked, “You claim you didn’t ‘want to rule at all’? So what did you want then? Chaos and anarchy?”
Luna’s left ear twitched and she snorted, visibly irked at that.
“Anarchy? Let me get this straight: you’re saying that without a divine mandate at hoof and above your heads, you ponies would degenerate into chaos, madness and war? War for what? For bits? For land that you all share? You would believe that the virtues of friendship and harmony are lesser than greed and the compulsion to own?”
Luna’s voice turned hard as steel. “You listen to me carefully now, Twilight. I’ve witnessed the tragedy of other species that had begun walking those paths with good intentions, and each and every one inevitably hung themselves with their own avarice.”
The door to her room slammed in her wake; she couldn’t stay cooped up in that confining cell a moment longer. She briefly considered seeking out one of the others, but it was late and come to that, despite everything, she wasn’t entirely comfortable opening herself so fully to them—especially given that her own thoughts were so... chaotic. Which wasn’t to say she didn’t want to, which was all the more confusing! She had never been a very social pony, so the ease with which she found herself creating bonds with them was startling... Maybe if circumstances were different... She found her thoughts drawn to Rarity, the elegant mare who had protected her, stood up for her, and argued on her behalf against her longer-standing friends. Fluttershy... something about the timid Pegasus made Twilight’s heart melt; the depths of her kindness and compassion were almost beyond description, and she had tended to Twilight when she had been unconscious. Pinkie Pie was... well, an anomaly, but a darned captivating one. She was perhaps the single oddest creature Twilight had ever met, heard of, or read about. She was... fascinating, and a joy to be around. Applejack’s heart was simply golden, despite her ‘miscalculations’ about that other Pegasus. Applejack was a sturdy young mare, honest and true. Twilight’s ears laid back as her thoughts turned toward that other Pegasus.
Rainbow Dash. It was obvious now that she was the blight in an otherwise pure group—that she was not under some spell, or being compelled in some manner. She had chosen to side with evil, to be evil, and Twilight resolved to have her arrested, maybe even banished, the first chance she got.
Aimlessly, she walked down the moonlit halls of the ancient castle, the intensely bright light of the moon pouring through evenly spaced windows providing more than enough illumination to see clearly. Twilight had always been an intensely curious pony, though her predilection for academics usually kept her away from more mischievous pursuits. Had it not, however, she may have had the benefit of past experience to warn her that venturing down into deeper and deeper recesses of the keep may not have been the wisest choice. Gritting her teeth, she stomped along the corridors, her hoof-falls echoing down the passages. Luna had taken her every argument and turned it around back at her like a... like a two-bit charlatan...
Twilight was utterly incensed, her mane shining in the moonlight.
“That is not what I’m saying! Good governance is the foundation of social order! How peace is maintained!” Twilight was hardly a student of the political sciences—in fact, she privately doubted ‘sciences’ was even a proper term for study—but she’d seen Princess Celestia at work: holding court, soothing wounded pride, and maintaining good relations with the dignitaries of neighboring states.
Luna didn’t hesitate to rejoin, her voice growing more animated than ever before, and Twilight marked herself a point for getting a rise out of her. “Social order? Is that what you’re calling this meritocracy my sister has fostered? Competition between ponies is a wonderful method of self-improvement, but it is a terrible precept to stand as the foundation of a social structure! You think ponies should seek to better themselves by the exploitation of their fellows? Look at the results: tell me who has managed to find seats closest to power. Sycophantic aristocrats! Their dreams are filled to the brim with nothing but their own ambition, greed, and desires for dominion over others. This is the manner of pony my sister would allow to rise above others? This mental sickness is worth reward? Insanity. The ethical devolution of such a system, once begun, is as inevitable as its own gathering momentum. ”
“Stop talking about Celestia like she’s a damned evil tyrant!” Twilight screamed.
Luna’s eyes went wide for a moment, before she broke down laughing.
“Graaaah!” Twilight growled to herself as she stomped through the corridors. How dare that... that... winged cow imply that Celestia had fostered a predatory social structure, and that I’m complicit in it! Luna had maintained that it was by mere chance she had been born to parents wealthy enough to afford her enrollment in Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, and had things been different, her potential could have just as easily withered away in some Manehatten alley, or backwater rock farm. She had been prepared to argue the point with venom until Luna had looked to the sky, her heated tone fading, and spoke in a soft voice about feeling the dreams of the thousands of fillies and colts sharing that unhappy, and eminently unfair, fate at that very moment. In that melancholy moment, Luna had turned her back on Twilight without another word, walking away toward the brook in outright dismissal of the purple Unicorn.
She rounded a corner, still trying to shake the unwelcome feelings of empathy with the Princess’ closing statement. Looking up and glancing around, she realized she’d come to a dead end, the ambient light almost nonexistent.
The corridor she found herself in was cavernous, dusty, and far darker than the halls by her room... running back through her mental map, she determined she was two staircases and three right turns from her quarters. With a flick of her horn, magic ignited, bathing the stone around her in a violet glow. Just ahead was a massive wooden door; the wood appeared extremely weathered with age, but still very solid. Further sparking her curiosity were the unique inlays on the aperture. Stepping closer, she tilted her head, her horn’s magic playing with the shadows of the carvings that ran along the wide frame. The sigils were etched deeply into the hardwood, curving in a runic language she didn’t recognize... which was decidedly odd, as she could at least identify most known languages, alive or dead.
Under normal circumstances, she was a mare who respected the privacy of others but these were not normal circumstances. Whatever that silver-tongued monster had locked away could well be the edge Twilight needed to gain the upper hoof! Hay, I’d settle for gaining an ‘even’ hoof at the moment. Glancing quickly over her shoulder to be sure she was still alone, Twilight turned back to focus on the door itself. Enveloping the round iron handle, she pulled; it didn’t even budge. Below the handle was a circular mechanism, with a hole in the center—a lock. Releasing the handle—a little too abruptly, the clang sending a metallic echo down the corridor behind her—she focused on the lock. She closed her eyes, allowing her magic to replace her visual senses, and she felt for the workings of the tumblers. One here, move it up. Another there, up again. This one? … Down. She carefully slid the pins within the lock about until a satisfying click came from the door.
Grinning in triumph, she again pulled on the door, and it swung open smoothly. Somepony had obviously kept it in good repair, for it neither creaked nor squealed on its hinges. Peering through the door, she saw nothing but an inky blackness that her magical light couldn’t seem to penetrate. It was as if there were a second door blocking her, one of a palpable darkness. Frowning, she cautiously stepped forward.
Her world turned white with pain, the sound of an electrical crack tearing through the air.
She found herself on her back, slowly recovering her senses on the unforgiving stone floor several feet from the door. “Uhhh, what the?” she muttered aloud. Rolling to her side and raising her head, she looked ahead, and saw faint lines of magical current flickering across the blackness behind the door. A shield spell then. One the likes of which she had never encountered before. Working her limbs to shake off the tingling aftereffects, she shakily regained her hooves, pondering this turn of events. Okay... no touchy.
Cautiously, she eased closer, until she was just outside the frame. She detached the light spell from her horn, sticking it on the wall to her right, where it would glow independently for at least an hour. Her horn began to shine anew as she carefully exerted a blanket of sensory magic against the ward. Both energies crackled in protest at the contact, but she ignored the visual display, trying to get a feel for its constitution. It was incredibly strong, tightly woven, and... far beyond her ability to break. At least... outright, she thought, an idea forming. A grin slid across her muzzle as she adjusted the application of her magic from a wide, flat surface to finely-honed vibrating probes, searching for weak spots in the weave. Expanding her senses totally into her magic, she felt for something... anything... There! In one spot, the size of a needle point, was a weakness. Focusing onto it, she began the arduous task of loosening the weave, while pushing her own purple magics into the widening gap. The energies of the barrier crackled in protest, but Twilight kept at it, sweat dripping from her brow as she poured her will into the task.
Refusing to relent, she continued to pick, and dig, and strain against the ward, the task no easier than trying to whittle through sheet rock with a file. Tapping into what little of her magical reserves remained, she at last managed to create a hole that she could squeeze through, if just barely. She reinforced it as much as she could, fairly certain it would hold out while she was inside, as long as she didn’t linger. She didn’t want to contemplate having to go through that all over again. Taking a deep breath, she crouched down and shimmied through the hole into the room beyond.
She had never seen anything like this before. The domed chamber was entirely circular, the only right angles to be found were where high walls met the floor. The barrier spell covered every inch, making the surface appear to have been constructed of solid obsidian. The flowing script she had seen on the door was everywhere, glowing a golden light and softly illuminating the room. The only adornment in the room was directly in the center: a small stone table, and on it stood a statue. It was a small, jet-black effigy of an Alicorn, head and horn raised high, wings stretched to their full length. Baffled, Twilight looked about, marvelling at the most potent array of containment magics she had ever seen. All of this, for a statuette? Could it be some kind of weapon? Cautiously, she moved toward the centerpiece for a better look. She froze as a horrifyingly familiar voice filled the room.
“Well well... a visitor. How lovely.”
Recoiling, Twilight spun back toward the door and her tiny exit.
Laughter echoed through the room as smokey tendrils erupted from the statue and wrapped about her neck. In the blink of an eye, Twilight had been lifted off her hooves and slammed hard into the far wall, held high above the floor. In that contact, she felt her mind flayed, an alien presence sorting contemptuously though her memories.
The voice was filled with unbridled delight.
“Oh my, this is an occasion! Celestia’s own private little pet has come calling, to be graced with my presence once again. And still so very deluded! Well little one, shall I ease your troubled mind before I feed you your own horn? Very well... everything you suspect about Luna is correct, almost. We may not be the same being, but everything I’ve done has been by her will! As for your greatest fear- it’s true. Oh, yes, Celestia is dead; I tore off her wings, one after the other, before slitting her pompous throat! The blood of a goddess is heady wine indeed!” the voice crowed before breaking into maniacal laughter.
Twilight choked off a sob of denial, her small body struggling against the bonds.
“Oh, now, don’t be like that! Just look at you, so pathetic, so innocent, so... pure. You make me sick!”
The magic about her throat tightened, Twilight felt her larynx began to creak under the pressure, before it suddenly eased off. Her relief was short-lived.
“Oh... why yes, Luna, that is a wonderful idea! Let’s show this little filly a thing or two about lost innocence.”
Twilight cast her eyes about the room, expecting to see Luna standing there, laughing down at her, but saw nothing. She didn’t have long to ponder this new oddity as the magic holding her turned viciously sharp, the vice-like pressure now slicing into her neck like talons. The sudden flood of pain overwhelmed her senses and crushed any attempt at coherent thought.
Twilight's eyes shot wide as her limbs were gripped and spread painfully wide. Independent tendrils of the black force began sliding down her back and up her ribs, leaving long, thin, white-hot cuts in their wake, in a sordid mockery of a caress. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she felt the magic move lower, around her flanks and about her haunches... her inner haunches, lacerating her flesh as her thighs were pulled widely apart.
...No. No. No no no! Please! No! STOP! NO!! PLEASE!
She tried to scream, but the vice of magic that held her by the throat was so tight she could hardly draw breath. Twilight knew she was going to die, but before being granted that grace, this creature was going to subject her to something much worse. She’d never imagined a situation where she would find having her neck broken to be a preferable alternative.
As her terror reached a frenzied peak, something inside her snapped. Her mind went blank and her vision blurred into a searing light.
The Nightmare was enjoying itself vastly. It had been denied everything. Then, like a dream on a silver platter, in strolled the treasured student of the second-most loathsome creature on the planet. It was too perfect. It didn’t expect the game to last long; the little Unicorn was far too fragile, but it had every intention of exacting as much pain and sordid pleasure from the pathetic little beast as possible, before tearing her to shreds. Perhaps it would paint the walls of this damnable chamber with her blood when it was all over. Then something happened. The Unicorn ceased struggling, the delicious outpouring of her terror and panic cut off like a closed tap, and was replaced by something utterly unexpected. Power. And it burned, pouring out of the purple filly in waves the Nightmare had never known mortal ponies to be capable of. Utterly unprepared for the assault, the magic holding Twilight simply evaporated, and it quickly retreated its essence to within the ironically protective confines of the cursed statuette.
Twilight found herself lying on the floor, the taste of blood thick in her mouth. Her entire body was on fire from the multitude of cuts. She didn’t know what had just happened, and at the moment, she couldn’t care less. All she knew what that this thing that had planned to rape and kill her was now screaming in pain, and filling the room with vile threats of her slow and bloody dismemberment. She bolted for the door—her burrowed tunnel through the barrier still holding—and frantically scrambled through it. Skidding around, she wrenched her magic away from the barrier and watched it instantly snap back into place, whole and solid. An unholy screech filled the corridor, and the black barrier flared, the arcane ruins around the door frame bursting to golden life, as something slammed against it hard enough to shake dust from the ceilings. Twilight turned tail and ran for her life, leaving a spattered trail of blood in her wake.
In a blind panic, Twilight galloped all-out, almost instinctively retracing her steps back up to her room. Bursting through the door and slamming it behind her, she threw her weight against it, her chest heaving with sobs. I have to get out of here. NOW. Nothing else mattered in this moment but to put as much distance between this place and her very-violated self as possible. No more doubts. ‘Luna’, or whatever in the four ponyhells she was, was a deceiver of godly skill and that thing in the basement—a violent shudder racked through her—was her servile monster, and she was done with this nightmare. She rushed over to her bed, fumbling about with her saddlebags, increasingly shaky as the bolstering adrenaline in her blood faded. The painful aching of her battered body was coming to the fore as she hobbled about.
A knock resounded on the door and she let out a scream of surprise, spinning around. Frozen, she could neither move nor speak. The petrified moment drew out, unbearably. Had it come for her?
A concerned voice came through the door, “Darling? Are you alright in there? What was that sound? I’m coming in!”
Rarity pushed through the door, stepping inside. She stopped dead as she took in the sight of Twilight, backed up against the far wall and cringing in terror. The purple mare’s pupils were shrunken to pinpricks as she stared unblinking at the other Unicorn. It was a moment before Rarity recovered enough to actually take note of Twilight’s appearance - her coat was littered with small cuts, circling her neck like a noose, long slices running the length of her midsections and... oh goddess... trickles of blood were running down the inside of her haunches, the liquid darkening her violet coat to a near-black color. The bookish Unicorn looked more like a blank-flanked filly, her tears flowing unchecked, running rivulets down her muzzle. She was trembling like a leaf.
In a rush, Twilight was all over her, clinging to her with desperate strength and bawling her heart out. Rarity’s coat was getting horribly stained from Twilight’s seeping wounds, but such was her concern that she didn’t notice. “Oh! By Celestia’s Grace Twilight! What has happened to you?!”
Between heaving sobs, Twilight choked out, “We... have to get out... of here. Now! Before it gets out!”
“Before what gets out dear?”
“It! Whatever Luna has down there, it’s evil! It’s pure evil, and I saw it, and it saw me, and it got me, and almost... almost... Oh goddess, Rarity, you have to help me!”
“Darling, breathe! It will be alright, I promise, but we can’t just leave the others! Fluttershy is still talking with Luna, and we have to tell Apple—“
“No Rarity! Please! There’s no time! Applejack is wrapped around Dash’s hoof, you saw how they are together! And Dash, Dash is with her!”
“Twilight, you may be right... maybe... about Rainbow Dash, but we simply cannot leave without a word to Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie!”
“Rarity, going to get them right now would be suicide! Fluttershy is with Luna right now! And we haven’t seen Pinkie Pie since we got here; she just disappeared and started exploring! It’s impossible, and I can’t stay here another second, I just can’t!”
Rarity’s lip was clenched between her teeth, her ears laid back. The position she found herself in was beyond untenable, but a choice had to be made. Twilight was leaving, with or without her.
“...Very well, Twilight, but I must at the least leave them a note, and gather my things. I’ll be right back,” she assured as she spun and galloped out of the room and down the hall.
Twilight turned and tore the blanket off her bed, ripping it crudely with shakily-controlled magic into small strips, wiping her blood away with some, and doing her best to tie makeshift bandages around her wounds with the others. She nearly retched wrapping the cuts all about her inner haunches. Twilight then turned to her own belongings, stuffing as many of the stone artifacts into her saddlebags as would fit, which turned out to only be four, and just barely—Rarity would have to pack the other one.
She tensed and perked an ear at the sound of rapidly approaching hooves. Rarity barreled back through the door, saddlebags strapped and ready to go. “I’ve left a note for Fluttershy in her room. I absolutely abhor the idea of leaving without her, but... she is a Pegasus. With any luck, she’ll be able to find Pinkie Pie and slip out without anypony the wiser.”
The pair edged down the corridors toward the main entrance, saddlebags bulging with their precious cargo. Finding the brilliance of the moonlight no ally, they stayed to the pooling shadows as best they could, wincing every time an errant hoof came down too sharply on the stone floors. The pair soon came to the massive antechamber, peeking about before they exited the corridor; the huge double-doors on the far side the final obstacle to their escape. Mid-way across the room, an explosion from below rocked through the castle, and a blaring clarion-call filled the air. They heard the clattering of hooves coming from an adjacent hallway, picking up speed. Luna came into sight down a far hall, about to enter the chamber, looking slightly alarmed and none too pleased. She caught sight of Twilight immediately. “What have you done?!” she demanded, her voice booming.
“Rarity, get the doors open, quick!” Twilight screamed. Panicking and out of time, she wrapped her magic around the support structures above the corridor Luna was in, and with all her strength, pulled.
The stone archway between Luna and the main room collapsed. It was only as she spread her wings in alarm that Twilight thought she caught a glimpse of a pink-maned and yellow-coated Pegasus cowering behind her. Then the passage was sealed with stone rubble, a thick dust filling the air.
Oh goddess! Was Fluttershy with her?
“Twilight, hurry!” Rarity called out, just as the sound of glass shattering came from above. Rainbow Dash had burst through a high window, looking for all the world to Twilight like an angel of black death in her uniform, as she curved sharply in the air above the war-torn room.
“What in the hell is going—HEY!” she began, before being cut off by a searing bolt of purple energy from Twilight that blasted past her, close enough to sear her armored side. Her evasive maneuver had cost her what limited lift she’d been able to maintain in the close quarters, and she barrel-rolled down to the floor.
Dash landed heavily, fully prepared to tear out after the pair of psychopaths that had just bolted through the main doors, when her perked ears caught a whimper of pain. It had come from a pile of rubble to her left, all that remained of what had once been a hallway. Rainbow Dash lifted a hoof to her mouth, coughing in the heavy dust, and her blood turned to ice as she made out a mangled yellow wing sticking out of the rubble.
Chapter 4 - “Foresight”
Chapter 6 - “Gravity”
The Unicorn tore through the underbrush, her mane a riotous tangle of branches and leaves. Her normally lustrous coat was frayed and scuffed, abrasions and small cuts perforating her hide; a trail of fresh blood smeared across her cheek from the tree she had careened into mere moments ago. In her haste, she had been paying scant attention to where she was going beyond a hazy guess at a general direction. Most importantly at this time however, her only real concern for a heading was away.
Bursting from the bushes, she launched herself into the air from a small incline and plunged at full speed into a narrow river. The water churned about her chest as she desperately powered her way through to the other side, the cold numbing her open wounds. As she gained her hooves against the slippery stones, she paused to gasp in burning lungfuls of air, vigorously shaking herself dry.
The plaintive voice of her companion came from behind her, less in a series of individual protests, and more a consistent bemoaning of every tangled snag and thorned bush she had to push through. Twilight lifted her head to see the alabaster Unicorn just now clearing through to the far side of the bank.
“Rarity!” Twilight called, “Come on! We need to move! They could be right behind us!”
“I… am trying darling, but all of this… ‘flight for one’s life’ business… is not precisely... my forte… as t'were. " She gasped, chest heaving for breath. "And these bags are stuffed… so full they catch… on absolutely everything!” Rarity protested as she forged her way through the strong current. Shaking the excess water away from her coat as well, she took a moment to try to catch her breath, and took in Twilight’s appearance. Having already been horribly assaulted before their flight began, she truly was in an awful state; the makeshift bandages she’d applied in the castle had torn away in their frantic rush through the wilds, and now she had the additional injuries of the forest’s obstacles to account for. With a shudder of revulsion, Rarity pushed away any thoughts of what she must look like at the moment.
The pair had been in full flight for the better part of half an hour, and neither of the Unicorns were particularly built for the effort. Twilight had spent more time in academic and mystical pursuit than sports; her trim build was more a matter of a naturally high pony metabolism than anything. Rarity herself was far from being considered an athlete in any arena, and if put to the question, would be rather proud of the distinction; she did, although, maintain a regular habit of exercises to keep her haunches trim and lines angular. At the moment however, both were bemoaning their respectively low reserves of endurance as they panted raggedly.
"Twilight, where… is the path?" Rarity asked, beginning to recover her wind.
Reflexively, Twilight looked up to the sky to orient her position with the constellations she had grown so familiar with over long, loving hours with her telescope and charts back in Canterlot. Two things prevented her from doing so. Primarily, it was the sprawl of the thick canopy overhead, blotting out nearly any view of the sky above. Yet, even without the near omnipresent boughs to obscure her sight, the stars would have likely been impossible to see, as brilliant beams of moonlight were cutting through the leaves and limning the trees around the two ponies. To illuminate the surrounding forest as it did, the moon must have been uncannily bright. As such, it was likely far too bright to allow the shine of the stars to be seen clearly. While the moon’s intensity was as unnatural as it was unsettling, it did make the forest easily bright enough to be navigated without having to light their horns, so Twilight wasn’t going to complain, at least on that front.
Looking around, Twilight answered hesitantly, "I'm… not sure, Rarity. I'm not even sure that we should take the path. I can't think of a quicker way to be caught than to stay on the only road coming or going."
Rarity blanched. She couldn't mean… "You can't actually be saying we have to continue pressing through this jungle! Not only will we be horribly lost, it shall take us simply forever to get anywhere," she protested. Though Twilight's reasoning was sound, the thought of what lay ahead was… daunting, to say the least. On the other hoof, now that she considered it… She sighed and said, "I suppose you're right, Twilight; staying to the main path would be foolish. We have not a hope of losing anypony staying to the road. Not to mention Rainbow Dash and Applejack… if… Well, either way, we have to be clever. Simply trying to outrun those two isn't an option, I'm afraid."
Twilight frowned, greatly disquieted. While the assumption of inevitable pursuit was a given, this cast an entirely new perspective on the situation, one Rarity hadn't actually raised directly yet. They apparently couldn't simply be content with orienting themselves and forging a path through the forest; once Dash and Applejack had discovered they weren't taking the road—and they would, before long—they would begin to track them. Looking down, the sight of a few drops of her own blood on the river stones served as a stark reminder to yet another layer of complication to their predicament.
Without warning, the roar of an outraged Dragon ripped through the forest, slamming into the two Unicorns with a psychological force so intense it was like a physical blow. Their poses were darkly comical in the manner they mirrored one another; one hoof raised, mouth hanging open, ears laid back, tail tucked, their respective pupils the relative size of pin-pricks.
The Dragons. How the hay could I have forgotten the Dragons?! Twilight thought frantically. Other ponies were one thing. Dragons… were another entirely. Twilight's mind spun with a chaotic brilliance as she analyzed the situation from a dozen angle: strategically, keeping to the deep forest was even more the correct decision now, but the vague notions that had been flitting about her mind for throwing pursuit off their trail just got a lot more serious. No Dragon would be deterred by a simple cantrip… not that she wouldn't still use them creatively, but now more drastic measures were called for. She would have to play it by ear though. There was simply no time to fully formulate any plans now, so she acted on the first tactic that came to her mind.
"Give me a moment here Rarity."
Pointing her horn towards the river, she built up enough energy for a fairly common holding spell, innovatively tweaked the weave, and released it into the flowing water. The river glittered and slowed for just a moment before the motes of light settled, merging fully with the surface. The instant somepony, or dragon, set foot in the stream for twenty feet in either direction from the casting point, the entire section would turn to solid ice, capturing whatever happened to be in the drink. She turned to explain what she'd done and the implications to their additional predicament, but found Rarity's eyes clenched shut, her horn aglow and already working at something, pointing in her direction. Curious, she looked about, left and right. Nothing was enveloped in the Unicorn’s distinctive hue of levitation magic. Twilight cocked her head, curious as to what she was attempting when Rarity released her spell in a flash of light. She gasped as pain lanced about her sides, legs—all over really. Stumbling back with a cry, she exclaimed, "Rarity, what—"
"Sorry for the lack of warning darling, but it was necessary. You were… leaking, all over the place. I'm no Florent Nightingale at medical magics, but I am an expert at manipulating fabrics and… well, skin and coat are something of a fabric… in a manner of speaking…" she said, slightly abashed. "That couldn't have felt pleasant, for which I do apologize, but you've been leaving a fairly vibrant trail up to this point."
Looking down and about at herself, Twilight took in what Rarity was talking about. Her wounds had been—while not precisely healed—at least closed. It wasn't pretty, but she was no longer bleeding profusely, and as the pain ebbed, she found a measure of relief in the ministration. Voicing her thanks, she turned back to the forest. "Well, we need to press on, but I don’t want to just keep going in a random direction.”
“Speaking of direction, darling, where do you intend on going?” Rarity asked, a note of trepidation in her voice.
Twilight blinked at this; she thought the answer would be self-evident. “Well, we’re heading to Ponyville, obviously. I can’t just leave Spike there!”
Rarity let out a breath of relief. “Oh, good. I was concerned you intended to head straight to Canterlot, and I simply wouldn’t be able to do so without seeing to Sweetie Bell’s safety first.”
“Wait, ‘first’? You mean to say you intend to on with me? I don’t... Rarity, why?”
“Well let’s see, Twilight Sparkle. Things aren’t exactly going to be safe for me just sitting out in the open at my boutique, will they? That’s the first place anypony will think to look for me. You think I just ran out of the castle with you on a whim?” Rarity’s voice was rising indignantly as she began to get worked up. “I came with you because I care about you!”
Taken aback, and now somewhat abashed, Twilight stumbled for words. “I... thank you, Rarity. I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I were all alone out here. Thank you,” she said, a powerful warmth flooding through her chest.
After a brief moment of the pair smiling at one another, a thought crossed Rarity’s mind. “Darling, how precisely are we going to find our way back?”
Twilight paused a moment, extrapolating with the information at hoof. “Well, based on our direction of flight from the castle, and this point where we’ve reached the river... Ponyville should be... generally that way,” she said, pointing her hoof with a fair amount of confidence. “If you could focus on just edging aside the larger branches out of our way, and be extra careful not to break any, then I'll work on covering our trail and figuring out a few more 'distractions'."
The Unicorns nodded at one another, and set off.
Rainbow Dash was seeing red. Some ponies with a bent for sarcasm may have been tempted to make a quip at that, perhaps snarking that her large, ruby-tinted irises produced such an effect anyway. Such a pony would not be wise to venture such a comment at the moment, for they would likely stand to lose a muzzle-full of teeth. To phrase the situation more aptly, Rainbow Dash was pissed.
She had been more confused than anything after Twilight had nearly blasted her out of the air, and had been about to rush after them. Rarity was with her and they were obviously really freaked out. That was when she had seen it; the broken wing jutting from tons of rubble. A yellow wing. With a strangled scream of denial, she launched herself over to the pile, bloodying her hooves as she desperately tore at the jagged stone and mortar, trying to reach her oldest friend.
Dash hopped back with a startled yelp when a luminescent aura suddenly enveloped every stone of the cave-in, large and small. Dust plumed anew as each chunk began to lift individually, all moving as if with a negative magnetic polarity with the body of the bloody, yellow-coated Pegasus. Once clear of her body, every stone simply dematerialized; there was no great flash, no burst of flame, just a fizzling of star-lit energy, and the tons of granite and marble simply ceased to be.
Dash could now see that Luna had been pinned beneath the rubble as well. She was crouched down and was, to all appearances, completely unharmed. Her wing had been extended over the body of Fluttershy; even so, the all-too-mortal little mare had not escaped the battering of tons of falling stone, though it was certain the Princess had saved her life.
“Fluttershy!” The shout preceded the arrival of Applejack, and she came to a skidding halt next to Rainbow Dash, who was crouched down, nosing the seemingly lifeless body of Fluttershy and mumbling incoherently between sobs.
“Dear Goddess, what happened?!” Applejack’s question, at no lower volume than her first exclamation, went unanswered as Luna rose and shook herself brusquely, producing a cloud of dust that filtered through the slanted moonlight of a nearby window.
Frowning down, Luna stepped forward, shooing Rainbow clear from her friend’s body and ignoring AJ’s outbursts entirely. Dipping her head to hover just above Fluttershy, her horn burst into a darkly violet radiance which softly enveloped the fallen Pegasus, raising her into the air in a light cloud of scintillating energy. As Fluttershy’s limp form hung there in the cloud of magic, the true extent of her wounds came into full display. Dash gagged, turning away, while Applejack moaned lightly, staring transfixed at the sight. Their friend’s wing was completely shattered, the feathers torn and matted with blood, her hind leg roughly broken, a deep gash running its length. Luna frowned, and the intensity of the magic increased, enveloping the Pegasus in a miniature, sparkling nebula, completely obscuring her form from view.
Applejack moved closer to Rainbow, placing a hoof across her shoulders in sympathy. The touch seemed to snap Dash out of her stupor; she blinked rapidly and roughly wiped the tears from her face with a foreleg. Her wing unfurled, throwing Applejack’s hoof away from her. Her eyes narrowing to slits, Dash failed to notice the hurt look Applejack gave her as she turned toward the door where the two Unicorns had made their escape. A growl rumbled low and deep in her throat and she took a step toward the castle’s courtyard. Applejack, suddenly coming to terms with her friend’s mentality, threw herself in her intended path.
“Dash! No! Now’s not the time, ya’ hear me?” she said, her tone openly pleading.
“Goddammit, AJ! Get... out... of my... way!” Dash growled the emphasis into each word, every muscle in her body painfully taut.
“Git ahold ah yerself, Rainbow! Ya’ can’t just go buckin’ off full tilt right now! Fluttershy needs us! She comes before dealin’ with Twilight an’ Rarity right now!” Applejack insisted, stomping a hoof.
Dash blanched, her ears folding back as Applejack gave voice to the fount of her rage. It was so much easier to be in the midst of an emotion than confront its source. Unbidden, a thought rose to the fore of her mind, and it terrified her to the core, for she knew it was true: If Fluttershy dies, I swear on everything I’m worth—I’ll fucking kill them both.
“Rainbow Dash.” Luna’s voice, hard as silver, cut into Dash’s private terror with her own thoughts.
The pair looked over to the princess, who stood above Fluttershy’s curled form, now returned to the ground. She was breathing easily now, and to Rainbow and AJ’s dual shock, not only were her wounds now closed—her wing and leg mended into their proper forms—but Pinkie Pie was nestled up next to her, her head resting atop Fluttershy.
“Pinkie! Where’d y’all come from?!” Applejack exclaimed.
Pinkie raised her gaze to meet the eyes of her friends, a light shine of unshed tears reflecting the moonlight. “I’m always around silly,” she said, a ghost of smile gracing her muzzle. She returned her attention to Fluttershy; she began to sing a light, bittersweet tune under her breath into the pink mane of the prone filly.
Once more, Luna’s voice cut the moment as she took charge; her tone could well have been carved of ice. “Rainbow, see to your friend; she needs rest. Get her into bed, and then return to the hall immediately. I will not be long, but I have some personal business below.” Turning, Luna began to trot brusquely down the corridor toward the lower halls of the keep.
Watching her go, Rainbow huffed, not at all satisfied with the putting off of finding out what the hay was going on, or having to hold back in doing something about it... but the Princess and Applejack, were right—Fluttershy came first.
With great care, the three mares lifted their friend between them; Applejack and Dash were at her sides, allowing Pinkie to slide underneath her and fully bear the limp weight. The unconscious Pegasus moaned in pain at the movement, despite the care they took with her. The three trotted carefully toward Pinkie’s room, which happened to be the closest, where they quickly gathered extra blankets, arranging them atop the mattress and easing Fluttershy carefully atop the now triple-layered, extra-cushiony bed.
The friends had said not a word on the way, but now, with Fluttershy settled, they shared a meaningful look, the tension in the air almost daring one of them to speak first into the silence.
Applejack had just opened her mouth to speak when an unworldly, feral wail tore through the air, stifled almost immediately by the castle shifting under what felt like the force of an earthquake. It was as though the fist of a god had slammed down on reality itself, and the friends were forced to the ground under the press of a sudden, unseen pressure from above. As quickly as it came, the force relented, and all was silent.
“What in the hay was that?!” squawked AJ, terrified and wide-eyed.
Dash shook her head roughly. “I dunno, but let’s go find out! Quick!”
AJ spoke, “But what about—”
Pinkie broke in. “You guys go. I’m not leaving Fluttershy.”
“Good on ya’ Pink!” Applejack said warmly. Dash nodded at Pinkie in acknowledgement and thanks, and the pair tore out the room at full speed, heading back to the hall.
In her haste, Dash reflexively spread her wings, her hooves still in full gallop but barely touching the ground as she pulled ahead of the earth pony. Taking the final corner at top speed, Dash banked hard and felt a sharp pull as Applejack latched onto her tail. The Pegasus’s tail in her teeth, Applejack’s hooves skid hard against the stone as they jackknifed around the sharp angle and out into the large antechamber.
There stood Luna, as promised. Her feathers were ruffled, and she was fluttering one wing while delicately preening the other, returning them to a pristine order.
“Princess!” Dash shouted, barely slowing in her approach. “What was that just now?!”
“Oh, just attending to a reminder, Rainbow Dash. Nothing to be concerned about.”
Applejack opened her mouth to ask just what in the hay that was supposed to mean, but Luna continued, unabated. “Now then, we are needed outside. This is proving be a very interesting evening, and we must act before certain things get entirely out of hoof.” Turning abruptly, she led the way through the rubble-strewn antechamber and out into the cool night air.
Applejack need not have worried about her curiosity going unanswered, for as they came out into the vast, grassy courtyard, she gasped in shock. At two things, really, and she would have been hard-pressed to say which weighed more heavily upon her frayed nerves. Firstly, there was the moon. It was huge, filling over a full quarter of the night sky. She had admired many a full moon above a ripe orchard before, but this one looked like it had decided to come down for a picnic with Equestria! Below it, and coming in close second for her immediate attention, were the dragons, assembled together in a half circle. Scales shining in the near-daylight brightness of the silver light, they sat arrayed in a half circle, awaiting the princess’ approach.
Luna, not breaking stride, looked skyward and tutted lightly to herself. “Hm. Perhaps I overdid it a bit,” she said under her breath. Luna didn’t actually need to ignite her horn to work with the moon any longer. Her ancient affections were now fully reestablished, and so it was that she merely... flexed her symbiotic connection and the great body began to gently recede to its more natural size and space.
Nearing the dragons, not that one needed to be terribly near to make them out, it became clear that one of them was not in a very good mood. While the other two were composed, including the gigantic one that spoke with Luna before, the one on the far left was clearly struggling to contain himself. He was snarling deep and low in his throat, his claws tearing furrows in the ground as they flexed, gaze fixed on the treeline of the forest. His companion—the one of similar size—nudged him roughly and growled something short and harsh.
The sight was not a comforting one for anypony trotting up to any dragon, and AJ felt her mane beginning to bristle in instinctive fear as she and Dash shared a look. They fell in a bit more tightly behind Luna.
The great dragon nodded respectfully at the approach of the moon goddess, intoning a somber greeting, “My Lady.”
“Saliant. I’m afraid we have had some rather unfortunate developments,” rejoined Luna.
“So I had noticed.” The dragon cocked a sardonic brow to the subtlety receding moon, still massive in the sky, then smirked. “You frightened the younglings my lady. Dragons are not accustomed to being flattened to the ground.” The other two shifted uncomfortably at the rare reminder that their kind were not, in fact, the most powerful beings of the land.
“My apologies Sali, I’m afraid I may have lost my temper with the creature.”
The more irate of the smaller dragons burst forward. “My Lady, I saw the two Unicorns flee into the forest from above, stuffed in their saddlebags were the Elementals. They have stolen them! And I felt what occurred within the castle. I cannot tolerate this disrespect, both to you and to my Elder! I beg release to retrieve them and give full answer to this insult!” the dragon growled, his fury barely restrained.
Saliant’s eyes glinted as he curtailed his immediate impulse to cuff the youth for allowing his emotions to so fully overwhelm his will. Rather, he chose to hold his peace while Luna considered the young one’s demand. There was a measure of honor involved here, after all, and he was curious as to Luna’s reasoning.
As far as Dash was concerned, Luna had paused for way too long. There’s no way she could let this dragon go after Twilight and Rarity! She got the distinct impression he was more interested in retrieving the Elements, and any pieces of the offending Unicorns that happened to still be attached to one another would be so merely by fortunate happenstance. Yes, she was beyond furious at the pair at the moment, and the Sun and Moon knew what she'd do when she got her hooves on them, but if this dragon got to them first…
Pushing abruptly past Applejack, Rainbow turned to face the goddess of the night.
"Princess, please, let me go after them! I'll bring them and the Elements back, I promise!"
"Hmm… " Luna hummed under her breath.
Applejack had quickly matched Rainbow's frightening rationale and came to the same conclusions, agreeing wholeheartedly. She moved to stand beside her friend to plead their case. "Please yer Highness, Dash an' me can take care ah this! Working together we can have a sight in the air and hooves on the ground." Applejack did her best to substitute the panicked motivation in her heart for the sound reasoning she was laying out; the resulting tone of voice was admirably level.
“My Lady!” the impatient dragon intoned in protest. His blood-lust was peaked, and these two little creatures were attempting to deprive him of his duty to avenge the insult done to his Elder! Not to mention the betrayal of this little goddess he had heard tales of since he was a hatchling; she who had long been held in the highest of esteem by the Elders.
His sibling leaned in, gripping his wrist in a vice as he hissed, “You fool! Hold your tongue! Do you want to serve a penance, or have you forgotten the honor brought to our Cave by being chosen to attend the Elder on this flight?”
The other dragon turned his head, fangs bared, an acidic response on his lips... when both froze under the sudden realization that Saliant was gazing at them both; a stare level, prolonged, and quite foreboding. The shine of his eyes held the promise of something dire should their little scene continue. With a great huff, the one who had pled and lost his case in one fell swoop wrenched his arm from the grip of his sibling, bowed low to both Elder and goddess in apology, and took to the air. His wings beat furiously as he drove himself higher and higher, venting his impotent fury in a great roar.
Turning back to Luna and the frightened little ones with her, the Elder spoke, “Forgive him Luna, the young are ever impetuous. I suggest you allow these two to go after their friends. Perhaps with fortitude and patience this matter may be resolved without any unfortunate duress.”
Luna had been smirking lightly throughout the exchange, and nodded at the dragon’s words. “A wise decision my friend,” she intoned. Turning to the ponies at her side, her countenance took on a stern appraisal.
“Rainbow Dash, you have been appointed as Captain of my Shadowbolts. This is not a distinction I have granted lightly, nor does it come without expectations of your quality. You have met these in spirit, now do so once again in action. You are to pursue the Unicorns Twilight Sparkle and Rarity, apprehend them, and return with the Elements. I place no small concern upon their well-being, but understand that the Elements of Harmony are of incredible significance. Should they fall into the wrong hooves, the potential for devastation is... vast. Do you both fully understand the situation?” she asked, regarding the pair solemnly.
In unison, and with equal gravity, the pair nodded. “We do Luna,” Rainbow Dash asserted.
The Unicorns were traveling doggedly through the forest for all they were worth. As frantic and rushed as their travel had been initially, it was now careful and attentive. Rarity worked diligently, leading the way in their best guess of the direction of Ponyville, her horn aglow and delicately manipulating the foliage ahead, allowing them to pass without breaking any of the hanging vines or criss-crossing branches.
Twilight was just behind her, the greater portion of her attention on their back-trail, doing her best to erase any scuff marks on stone or hoof prints left in the soft earth. She had also been focused on coming up with a variety of clever tricks and traps to confound any pursuit. Unfortunately, despite her impressive knowledge of the arcane, there was little she could contrive that would prove more than minor inconvenience to a draconic hunter. Though several could certainly be fatal to a pony, this was a particular concern she didn't share with her companion.
In the routine and repetitive task of clearing the signs of their passage, Twilight was becoming increasingly lost in the downward spiral of her silent contemplations.
That thing was lying. It had to have been. Celestia can’t be dead, she just can’t be. But... lies. Why are there are so many lies? Even Celestia was lying to me. Worse, she was using me. That’s clear now: she had some kind of plan behind me being in Ponyville, she expected me to be able to do something. Should I be more upset that I failed her, or that I was just a pawn for her to throw about? I thought she cared about me, was that all just another charade? My entire life?
Twilight found herself biting her lip as her eyes began to water, the feeling of utter betrayal permeating her attempts to rationalize her way through recent events. And what was I supposed to do anyway? What did Celestia have planned? She must have thought I would be able to use the Elements somehow, that’s the only thing that makes sense. Why me? Did she give me something I’d need to use them? What did I bring with me... Spike? Could Spike be the key to using them? No, that doesn’t make any sense at all! If I can’t figure this out, it doesn’t matter how far I manage to run. Even if I make it all the way to Canterlot, I doubt even the full Council of Mages could do more than slow those dragons down if they decide to come for me, not to mention Nightmare Moon herself. Would the Council know how to use the Elements? How could they? As far as I know the Elements of Harmony are just an old ponytale to any serious scholar... and I would know! So what then?! I guess I can either just throw myself off a cliff or—
Twilight was broken roughly from her thoughts when she walked directly into Rarity's behind. As fortune would have it, her horn was not down.
"Oof!" she exclaimed in surprise, "Rarity, what is it, why'd you—" She was cut off by a sharp, "Shhh!" from the alabaster Unicorn. Perking her ears, she froze to listen for whatever had caught Rarity's attention. Was that… music? Barely discernible, filtering through the forest was, indeed, the unmistakable sound of music.
Twilight and Rarity exchanged glances. Nodding in unison, they changed direction, heading toward the sound. As they grew nearer, the music grew clearer and the forest about them began to thin out. What had been rugged and tangled jungle since the castle, slowly began to turn into a more orderly forest. A thin mist was in the air, wisps of the ephemeral substance clinging to the ancient trees. The scents of the wood about them were rich and old, the moss carpeting the ground beneath them sinking slightly under the weight of their hooves, making for silent progress.
They were close enough now to clearly discern that two instruments were at work. One resonating and deep, the other of a higher tone, like a... harp, perhaps? A duet was in progress, but not one of a classical harmony. The two instruments seemed to weave around one another in the refrains, as though in fluid competition for the more beautiful melody. The effect was a song of an increasingly heartbreaking melancholy that seemed to echo the very heartbeat of the ancient forest around them.
The Unicorns were utterly transfixed as they grew closer, the fog about them had become so thick they could barely see, but it sounded as though the source of the music was right there, all around them. Suddenly, the fog was gone, and Twilight looked back, startled by the abruptness of its end. A thoroughly opaque wall of mist was behind her, obscuring any sight of the forest beyond. Ahead, glimpsed through a copse of trees, was a picturesque glen.
They cautiously edged closer, sneaking up to crouch behind one of the larger trees and one to either side, peeked out around it. The clearing was large, here and there tall wheat grasses rose in tufts, their ripe ends golden and shining in the moonlight, as fireflies flit in a random synchronicity about the meadow. It was a stunningly beautiful scene. This place felt... hallowed. Sacred.
In the center, beneath the full glow of the moon, were two ponies, sitting a short distance apart and facing each other. One, whose dark brown mane was elegant and flowing, slid a bow across a large stringed instrument; Twilight thought she recognized it as a contra-bass. The other was... reclining in a manner Twilight had never seen anypony do before, though she plucked with exceptional grace at a shining lyre.
Reaching its inevitable crescendo, the song came to an end as the final note rang throughout the clearing. Twilight blinked, realizing she had began to cry softly at the beauty of the music. Truly, the melancholy tone was so heartbreaking, that she identified with it down to her core, as it seemed to sum up the emotional totality of her situation; how very lost she felt, like she'd never know the feeling of being home again even if she stood upon its doorstep, that her entire existence was as significant and long-lasting as a wave breaking upon the shore.
The slate-grey pony in the glen let out a long breath, then rose and dipped a graceful bow, as though a contest had been decided and she conceded a dignified defeat. With loving care, she slid her large wooden instrument into a protective case and hefted it across her back. Without a word she left the clearing, disappearing into the mists.
The verdant Unicorn stood, cloaked in the silence of the meadow, emanating an atmosphere of both the serene and the arcane.
The two fugitives looked at each other, exchanging hushed whispers behind the shelter of the tree.
"Do you know her? Who is she?" Twilight asked.
"I do, vaguely. I believe her name is Lyra, she lives in Ponyville. She moved recently."
“Why... how was she sitting like that? It looked so uncomfortable.”
“I’m sure I haven’t the faintest idea,” Rarity replied, her tone faintly indignant.
"Well how did she get out here? I thought the town was under lockdown?" Twilight whispered back.
Lyra's voice broke through the hush, loud and clear in the glen, causing the two in hiding to jump in shock. "I come and go as I please. Don't you?" she said, without turning to look back at them.
Their clandestine charade was up. Frowning in concern, the pair stood, slowly edging around the tree they'd been hiding behind.
"Beauty is so ephemeral a thing, wouldn’t you agree?" the green Unicorn asked, seemingly rhetorically, as though not expecting an answer.
Tilting her head up and back, looking at them through the corner of her eye, she added, "Though beauty without wisdom is a shallow thing, and grace without humility is a rather pathetic affectation… don't you think?" She grinned, casually stretching out her back with a feline grace.
Lyra finally turned to face the pair squarely, who were still standing hesitantly by the tree line. "Well? Come sit down and make yourselves comfortable. You are quite safe here, and by the looks of things, you could both use a moment of refuge."
Twilight wanted to be cautious, she really did, while Rarity was still struggling over whether or not she had the energy left to act affronted by this green Unicorn’s implications, which she felt were directed at her specifically. In the end though, neither had it in them. The offer of sanctuary, however tenuous, however temporary, was too appealing to reject for their physically and emotionally exhausted states.
Trotting closer, Twilight spoke, "Thank you for the offer. We just need a place to stay while we catch our breath."
Lyra laughed a bit at that, "Oh, my dear, you need much more than that."
Tilting her head, she asked, "What is that supposed to mean?"
Lyra sighed, and paused a moment before replying. "You need… a reason."
"Um, what?" Twilight asked, officially nonplussed.
"A reason. You've lost yours, and now doubt that you ever had any to begin with. An average pony cannot live day-to-day without one, not without becoming a hollow shell, to say nothing of one in whose saddlebags rest the fate of so many," Lyra said, one eyebrow raised.
Twilight felt her hackles rising at the mention of her saddlebags, or rather, what they contained. She was beginning to wonder when the last time she hadn’t been suspicious of somepony was.
"And what would you know about that?" she demanded.
Lyra smiled with an enigmatic serenity. "Clearly much more than you're comfortable with. Peace, Twilight Sparkle; not all things in this world exist to threaten and confound you, though it may seem so at times."
Unprepared to tackle that particular line, Twilight switched tracks, trying to stifle a yawn. “What... is this place? There’s powerful magic here, I can feel it but... it’s strange. Not like any kind I’ve studied.”
“This is my special place. The magic here is very old. It... called to me. It’s not like any kind of spell to be used. There’s something sanctified about the glen itself.” She shrugged lightly, as though discussing the weather. “The point is, it’s safe. Are you two hungry?”
At the mention of food, Twilight and Rarity’s stomachs growled in angry unison. They hadn’t eaten in what felt like ages, and the war between trepidation and hunger was a short one.
With a light chuckle, Lyra bent and lifted a basket from behind the stump she had rested her lyre upon. It was filled with carrots, cabbages and a small loaf of bread. She moved forward and set it down in an open offer. “Don’t be shy. Come, take your fill and rest,” she said, as she turned back to collect her lyre and settled back in her unique manner, resting against the stump.
Twilight and Rarity gratefully moved to the basket, settled down upon the comfortably thick grasses, and began to munch ravenously at the crisp and crunchy vegetables. Lyra, a short distance away, closed her eyes and began to play softly again, the music wrapping once more around the meadow.
Before they knew it, their bellies full and their bodies exhausted, the gentle music had lulled the two Unicorns down into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Into the night, Lyra played and the two little ponies snored. The shroud of fog drifted in a lazy, ever-swirling arch about the clearing as the moon slid across the sky.
If one had been unaware or distracted, the sudden appearance of the new arrival would have gone completely unnoticed. Massive as the figure was, its emergence was utterly silent as it stepped smoothly through the ubiquitous wall of grey mist. Though Lyra was neither unaware nor distracted, her song continued unabated. For a time, the hulking new arrival simply stood, eyes turned skyward as he listened, large ears erect. A closing note ending the refrain, Lyra turned her head.
“So many visitors tonight,” she stated.
Large yellow eyes shifted to take in the slumbering ponies. “So it would seem.”
“And to what do I the honor of another visit so soon, night walker? It’s hardly been a fortnight since we last spoke. Have you missed me?” she sidetracked, a glib amusement in her voice.
The yellow eyes rolled as the massive, wildly furred creature stepped forward. “As though the wide forests haven’t been abuzz with recent events, speaks this little pony. As though she hasn’t decided to directly intervene,” he replied sternly. “This is not our way. I would know why you choose to interfere in the affairs of the Sun and Moon.”
With mock melodrama, Lyra rose a hoof in protest. “Interfere? I would never!”
The pair stared at one another blankly, before breaking out into a mutual laugh: one high and sweet, the other low and resonant. The Wolf curled his tail and sat, still towering head and shoulders above the green Unicorn. He flicked an ear and spoke again, “I do indeed bring news this night. As you know, there are more players in this little intrigue. And this one,” he pointed his muzzle at a slumbering and oblivious Twilight Sparkle, “has been playing seriously. She left some fairly clever dissuasive arguments to pursuit scattered along her back-trail.”
This gave Lyra pause, her eyes half-lidded as the light touch of amused banter faded from her voice. "Is that the never-ending Lycanth understatement I hear speaking? Just how ‘clever’ are we talking about here?" she asked, her concern genuine.
The Wolf stared at her levelly for a moment before barking out a single word. "Lethal."
Lyra touched a hoof to her chin in contemplation. "Perhaps, old friend, you should keep an eye on those that follow. I rather doubt any party invested in this would care to see the players irrevocably damaged. That is, of course, if it is your will to do so." She had known this Wolf a long time, and knew well that his kind were not well-pleased by demands.
The Wolf nodded amiably enough. "It was, and is. I don't care to get too heavily involved, so I'll leave them in your care, provided they're not already dead, hmm?"
"Of course, of course. Keep your claws as clean as you like, old friend, though I know you and your Packs are as interested in this as I am, or you would not be here. This is no petty political intrigue...” Lyra chuckled, waving a hoof. “This is the great game of our age, is it not?"
The Wolf grinned, long fangs glinting as he huffed, “Heh. I suppose this is what we get for shepherding a Pony into the depths of the Night. You begin to speak like one of the Pack, little Lyra.”
He rose, padding silently towards the wall of fog. “Expect to receive them before the dawn. I make no promises as to their condition,” he tossed back over his shoulder before disappearing into the darkness.
Chapter 5 - “Bereavement”
Chapter 7 - “Ambiguity”
Once more, very special thanks go out to Sali and Sage.
Applejack and Rainbow Dash tore down the wide thoroughfare at a full gallop, the bright moonlight casting long shadows all about them. Their hooves clattered sharply on the wooden bridge as they crossed. Both ponies were strong athletes, their bodies already shifted into the high-gear mode of a challenge thrown down. Between controlled breaths, they had little trouble with conversation.
"AJ, I'm gonna pull ahead and up a bit, see if I can spot ‘em down the trail!"
"Good call, Dash; if they hear us comin' they might make a duck into some bushes. I'll keep an eye out!"
Dash nodded as she unfurled her wings and lifted off the ground. Now airborne, the wind flowing easily around her aerodynamic frame, she began to pick up greater speed than any earthbound pony could hope to match, even Applejack. Soon, she was well out of sight, powering along just below the high boughs that converged above the path.
Left to her thoughts, it wasn't long before AJ began to wonder. Somethin' don't feel right. Twilight sure ain't no athlete, an’ I'll be shorn if Rarity coulda’ kept this pace for this long. Glancing about to confirm her theory, she had been paying special attention to the brush off to the sides, looking closely for any sign of a pony-sized hole that may have recently been plowed through. Nothin'. This don't make no sense… unless...
She pulled to a halt, pursing her lips and let out a piercing whistle, signaling Dash to return. Which, after barely a minute had passed, she did.
"What the hell, AJ? Why'd you whistle? Give us away much?" the Pegasus snarked.
"Dash, this ain't right. Think about it: there just ain't no way them two could have come this far this fast. We've been after ‘em for too long, and ain't seen any sign."
"Well, what are we gonna do? We can't go back empty-hoofed and let that dragon go after them! You heard what he said!” Dash broke off, frowning thoughtfully as she hovered in the air. “So, what do ya think?"
"Ah'm bettin' the only thing they could’a done was go right into the forest. That's the only way we'd a missed their trail so far. We need to backtrack and find where they went in."
"Great! That's just great!" Dash exclaimed with a moan, crossing her arms over her chest, clearly pouting.
"Ah know it sugarcube… but the way it’s lookin’, trackin’ is what we’re gonna have to do. They must'a gone into the deep o’ the forest. No way 'round it."
"Ugh! That'll take forever! Okay, tell you what—you backtrack, look for wherever they went in. I'm gonna zip up ahead to the end of the road, just to be totally sure. If I don't see ‘em, I'll head back in a snap."
Applejack nodded. "Alright then," she said, turning about and heading back the way she came. She knew she'd been paying close enough attention to the surrounding path that she hadn't overlooked their point of entry—it must have been back closer to the castle itself.
Coming back across the bridge, she slowed to a brisk canter and really started to scrutinize her surroundings. Ah sure wish Winona were here right about now. She'd be on their trail lickety-split.
Applejack was growing increasingly frustrated when she caught the sound of flapping wings coming up from behind—Dash had caught her up.
"Any luck?" she asked, looking back to find her question preemptively answered by the scowl painted across her airborne friend's face. A "Humph" from the disgruntled Pegasus confirmed it.
They were now back within the huge clearing, the castle in the distance. Together, they began searching the circular tree line and quickly found what they would have spotted, had they not been in such a rush initially. Broken branches and a flurry of tracks leading into the heart of the Everfree Forest - they had the trail. It wouldn't be long now; the two Unicorns couldn't be making good time through the intensely thick, jungle-like forest.
"All right then, AJ; you take the trail, I'll take the air. Keeping track of you shouldn't be a problem, so just whistle if you need me. With any luck we'll find them pretty quick." Rainbow Dash paused, her eyes narrowing. "They have a lot to answer for."
"Dash, I know what yer feelin', an’ Ah'm angry 'bout Fluttershy too, but don't get too carried away when we catch 'em up, okay? This whole thing ain't makin' much sense right now, and we gotta lot to figure out 'bout what happened back there."
Dash glared into the darkness of the forest. "Like I said: answers. We're wasting time, let's go." With that she was off, above the tree line in a heartbeat, disappearing from view.
Applejack frowned upwards, more than a little concerned about the ambiguity of that last statement… but Dash was right, time was wasting. With a grumble, she proceeded into the forest. It was dark, and the canopy heavy, but the moon was so bright it wasn't long before her eyes adjusted more than enough to see clearly.
What she saw was at once reassuring and disturbing. Reassuring in that the path the fleeing pair had taken couldn't be more obvious—they had plowed through the brush like a freight train: the grasses were bent, leaves scattered about and broken branches and twigs completely littered the trail they had taken. What disturbed her was the other side of that bit—they were running scared, blind and totally panicked. A pang of concern warred with the curiosity in her mind and the anger in her heart at what had happened to Fluttershy.
What happened to you, Twi?
Applejack knew there was only one way to find out. She set off at a good canter. Not knowing if Dash could pick up the shifting of the brushes as she made her way, though she assumed she could, AJ nevertheless let her hooves clatter against the occasional stone loud enough to be heard from above.
Making good progress, AJ flinched at the occasional tufts of mane and coat hanging from branches, torn from the Unicorns in their flight. She gasped as she came across a particular tree smeared with blood at head-height, as though one of the ponies had slammed right into it. Falling silent at the thought of what could have caused the grisly stain, her ears soon perked, picking up the sound of rushing water not far ahead. Pushing her way through the thick brush she cleared to the bank... and froze, her jaw hanging wide open in complete disbelief.
Rainbow Dash had been flying in a tight circular search pattern, keeping an ear on Applejack’s location below, not wanting to lose her. At the same time, she was on the lookout for some sign of the fleeing Unicorns: a sound—Rarity must be whining non-stop—or perhaps a glint of light from their horns, not that they'd really need it to light their way with how crazy-bright the still huge moon was.
Her thoughts were lingering on what Applejack had said before, and the implications were perfectly clear: Applejack thought she was going to fly off the handle when they caught up with Twilight. The sudden swell of rage in her breast at the thought of what the purple Unicorn had done to Fluttershy made her admit that Applejack was right to be concerned... the admission made her slightly uncomfortable. She knew she’d always been bit... ‘impetuous,’ sure, but it’s not like she was just going to start breaking bones when they caught up to Twilight. The more she thought about it all, the more she got the feeling that something was out of place. Twilight just didn’t seem the type to totally spit her bit like that, at least to the extent that she did. Whatever reason she had though, she’d gone too damned far! Nothing could excuse—
Her ears perked to attention. She had just spotted what she was sure was movement up ahead, past the snaking line of the river below, when a shocked cry from AJ sent her banking sharply around, toward the sound of her friend's call, trying to find a place to drop safely through the near-ubiquitous canopy. Why the hell is she shouting?! Damn it, if they hear us they're just gonna try and hide!
Applejack called out again, “Dash! Ya’ll need ta see this! Git down here now!”
She abandoned her attempts at a cautious descent at the panicked tone in Applejack's voice and burst down through the thick foliage, jinking hard in her rapid fall to avoid the larger branches.
There was Applejack, standing stock-still in front of—What… The fuck... Is that?!
Dash found herself just as lost for words as her friend had been as she came to a rough landing next to the orange pony. Before her was a twisted, morbid scene, made all the more horrific by its unnatural beauty. The water of the river before them had somehow been turned to solid ice and… erupted, rising in stiletto spires high into the air, the solid ice glittering in the moonlight. The blood that ran thickly down the central spikes was also shining in the silver glow. Ten feet above them, a Manticore was hanging, speared through in a dozen places, its body hanging limp and lifeless. One of the razor-sharp icicles had pierced up through its throat, nearly severing the head of the beast.
How long the moment of shock held the pair immobile, they couldn't have said, but it was Applejack that broke the horrified silence, her voice barely a whisper.
"Sugarcube… what… what is this?"
Dash snapped out of her stunned silence, her mind shifting from shock to the absolute clarity of fatalistic realism. Turning her head, she met Applejack's wide eyes with a level stare.
"This is Twilight. It has to be. There's no way Rarity could know magic like this. Hell, I've never even heard of any magic like this. She must have known we'd come after her, and wised up. Look across the bank, no more broken branches, just a few tracks."
Applejack squinted over, but lacked the intensely sharp vision of the Pegasus to distinguish the tracks at that distance.
Dash continued, her tone low and raw, "She's thinking now, and she's not playing games. This would have killed you if you’d set it off."
Applejack's ears flattened against her head. She couldn't believe this. She couldn't believe that Twilight would actually do something like this, would go this far.
And Rarity... Rarity is with her, she knew about this! I don't… I can't…
Applejack felt like her heart was breaking. She didn't even notice the foreleg that wrapped around her shoulders until it pulled her into a crushing embrace. Blinking past tears she hadn't realized were flooding her eyes, she buried her face in Dash's multi-hued mane.
After a long moment, Dash pushed her back.
"AJ. Turn around and go back to the castle," she said, her tone clipped.
This Applejack was not prepared for. "Wait, what? What are you on about Dash?"
"The rules have changed, AJ. Twilight's not playing fucking games here, I just told you. You're turning around, and going back to the castle. I'm not letting that—" She jabbed a hoof at the grisly spectacle before them. "—Happen to you. No. Way."
Emerald green eyes flashed in recognition of what Dash meant, and her jaw set.
"Rainbow, you think I'm letting you go in there alone, you spent too much time in the clouds," Applejack said, her voice hard as oak.
The two stood, squared off and glaring at one another, each by their stubborn natures unwilling to yield her position.
Dash stomped a hoof and growled her frustration. "Damn it AJ, do I have to beat some sense into you? Again?"
Refusing to rise to the bait, under-hoofed as the jibe was, Applejack knew how to win this debate. "Dash, think 'bout this. How do you expect to find em? You got sharp eyes, yeah, but you don't know the first thing 'bout trackin'. If'n ya recall, the only reason the Princess didn't let that dragon go after 'em was because my plan was a good one. One in the air, one on the ground. 'Sides, what if I do go back, an’ that dragon gets his chance? He wants their blood, the Elements, an' that's it."
Dash was silent for a moment, considering all this. She was terrified for her friend, but Applejack seemed equally afraid for her. She knew she lost this round, but with a stroke of brilliant mischief, she decided not to leave her friend comfortably dwelling on the victory.
"Y'know Applesnack, you're kinda hot when you get pissed," she said with a smirk, turning abruptly and snapping her tail under Applejack's chin, leaving the workpony totally flustered.
Giving Applejack no chance to respond, Dash was back to business.
"Okay, so we're going on together now, but I'm not leaving you on the ground alone. Who knows what else that freakin’ sorceress set up. C'mon, I'm gonna lift you over to the other side."
Applejack grinned. "Just watch your hooves there, Sally."
The going was much, much slower now. The pair they were tracking had really collected their wits. As obviously panicked and thoughtless as their initial rush through the thick forest was, the path they blazed was now conversely subtle. The only signs to be found were the occasional hoof-scuffed earth, bent grasses, and oddly arranged branches. It was enough for Applejack, if just barely. Even more troublesome was the constant stress of vigilance. They could only guess what else lay in store for them down the trail, courtesy of a hyper-powered, highly trained and intensely paranoid personal protege of a goddess.
Having already encountered a couple more of her calling cards, they were developing a decidedly healthy level of paranoia themselves.
The first after the slaughtered Manticore had been some kind of illusion-baited trap. How they triggered it, they had been unable to able to figure out. They had been passing beneath the arching branch of a massive tree, when without warning came the voices of Twilight and Rarity, right next to them—"They found us! Run!"—the colors of violet and alabaster forms barely discernible as they dashed away through the middle of a thick brush.
Dash had reactively bolted after them, only to be tackled to the ground by Applejack before she got two steps. "AJ! What the hell?!" she squawked out indignantly.
"Dash, that ain't right. Didn't you notice? Those leaves didn't move around 'em, no sound of their hooves, and now listen- nothin'. My bottom bit says that was another trap." To test her theory, she lifted a stick off the ground in her mouth and tossed it into the bush that the ‘Unicorns’ had so suddenly appeared in.
The pair flinched and stepped back reflexively as the space within the foliage lit up in a fierce, if tightly contained, storm of electrical energy.
The third encounter was as fortunate for the pair as the first. Another denizen of the forest had triggered it before their arrival, though not by much. They heard the explosion clearly, not far ahead. Arriving on the scene, they looked around cautiously. Something had been blown to messy little bits here. The only identifiable piece of the unlucky creature was the clawed foot of a chicken. As gruesome as the Manticore had been, the sheer amount of gore and blood painting the trees and ground around them was worse.
Applejack turned, retching at the fetid stench, while Dash grimly pushed past her own nausea, trying to figure out exactly what had happened here. Looking about carefully, she saw that there were jagged shards of stone scattered amidst the gore… as if… an exploding rock? This is getting insane! Did that thing even have to step on it, or did it blow when it got too close? What the hay has Celestia been teaching this filly? Dash's first impression of Twilight had been of an admittedly cute bookworm who didn't get out much. Now she was wondering if she wasn't some kind of secret agent Unicorn!
Applejack, having successfully vacated the contents of her stomach and feeling none the better for it, began to speak in hushed tones as they made their way through the forest.
"Dash, I been thinkin'. Now I know what yer gonna say, but just hear me out—I don't think Twilight's been tryin' to kill us." Applejack got precisely the look of incredulity she'd expected, but before the Pegasus could start verbally questioning her sanity, she pressed on. "I mean, us specifically. The more I think 'bout it, the more I'm sure she was really expectin' those dragons to be comin' after her, not us. Think 'bout it- lethal as all that would'a been for us, I don't much think they'd ah done more'n slow a full-grown dragon down. She's desperate, scared, an’ tryin' to buy as much time as she can."
Rainbow frowned thoughtfully. "I get what you're sayin' AJ, and it makes sense, but it doesn't exactly change the situation does it? I mean, one wrong step we might not even see coming, an’ it's over."
"Yeah Dash, I know. I'm sayin' this cuz I want ya to try to understand where she's comin' from… I'm just afraid o' what you two are gonna do when we do catch 'em up. Just… promise me, please, that you'll at least hear her out. Please. For me."
Dash's frown deepened into a scowl. She walked on in silent vigilance of their surroundings. Applejack decided not to press her any further, her point and plea had been made; she was confident Dash would think long and hard about her words.
A short while later, Applejack suddenly pulled up, eyes wide and ears perked high as they swiveled about. Dash looked at her questioningly, but the other pony’s attention was completely focused on something elsewhere.
"Dash," she said, her voice barely audible, "we're not alone."
Eyes darting surreptitiously all about, Dash saw… nothing, felt no hint of what would make Applejack say such a thing, but there was no questioning that her friend was serious. A chill ran down her spine.
"How can you tell?" she whispered back.
"Earth pony thing. Ya'll Pegasi can control the weathers 'n such, Unicorns have magic, my kin have… it's hard to describe. It's a connection to the land, I guess ya'll could say. An Ah'm tellin' ya, we're being stalked. Ah can feel it."
While Dash didn't really know what to make of the explanation, she didn't doubt the validity of it, but there didn't seem to be much they could do about it at the moment, and she said as much.
Applejack nodded, "Jus'… jus' be on yer guard, okay?" she whispered, rounding a tree heavy with vines. The irony of her last statement was lost on both ponies as the vines wreathing the tree suddenly lit with a distinctive purple radiance and came alive. With blinding speed, they lashed out and whipped about Applejack, binding her and pulling her into a bone-crushing impact with the tree. She struggled frantically, but was strung up tightly to the base of the tree as more vines snaked about her torso and neck, their long thorns cutting into her.
"Dash!" she screamed. "Get these damned things offa me! It's getting tighter! Aaaah!"
Bolting over, Dash pulled at the malignantly enchanted flora, her armored uniform protecting her forelegs from the sharp thorns. The vines were wrapped far too tightly against her friend's body to find enough purchase or to get any leverage, so she began to use her teeth, frantically trying to bite through them as all the while Applejack cried out in anguish, the thorns digging deeper into her flesh. Applejack's screams grew weaker as the vines wrapped around her throat, effectively strangling her. Eyes wide and pleading, she stared at Rainbow as her friend desperately tried to free her. It wasn't working. Applejack felt the vertebrae in her neck begin to creak as the vines constricted relentlessly, forcing her head inexorably back and up toward an unnatural angle that would soon snap her neck like a dry twig.
The huge creature appeared out of nowhere, throwing Rainbow Dash out of the way like she was a rag doll. Moonlight flashed on silver claws as they cut through the death-trap vines in a single, fluid arch. Applejack collapsed to the ground, barely conscious and gasping raggedly as her lungs greedily filled with oxygen. Her senses slowly returning, she could hear Dash's voice, cursing from somewhere in the middle of a bush as she thrashed about, trying to clamber free. Her blurred vision began to clear, and she found herself at eye-level with a pair of huge, clawed paws.
Lifting her head, she found herself gazing up at a creature she had only heard tales of, traditionally the kind used to frighten misbehaving colts and fillies. This close up, his massive frame completely filled her field of vision. His fur was thick and wild, the breadth of his chest and shoulders easily twice that of her brother, who was one of the largest stallions she'd ever seen. His large ears were perked and fully forward… and those eyes. Large and yellow, they seemed to glow with an internal light as they pierced her with an emotionless and steady regard. She was struck with the certainty of intuitive knowledge that he was looking past her coat, beyond her bluster, into the very core of her... and that he was little impressed.
The flood of curses pouring from Rainbow's direction ceased abruptly as she cleared the tangled mass of leaves and shrubbery she had been hurled into. A frozen moment lingered on the scene as she took in the massive creature standing before a prone Applejack… correction, the massive predator looming over a helpless Applejack! Impulse and recognition washed over her. No time to think, just act—do something, try to get him away from AJ, buy her time to escape.
Wings flaring, a snarl of rage and fear tearing from her throat, she launched herself at the predator.
A single shaggy eyebrow rose above an ambient eye.
Lyra was beginning to grow concerned. The dawn was fast approaching. The greater Convergences were ever tricky—unpredictable as their results were pivotal. Planning was all good and well, but once the events were in motion, things always had a tendency to spiral beyond the hope of control, into the murky waters of chaos. Beyond the sight of even the wisest.
Why did gods always seem to think they could control everything? The same reason we always do I imagine, she ruminated. Endless self-delusion at our own grandeur. Could be worse, I suppose. I've heard the tales of those other realms, too horrible to even contemplate. And what can any of us do? Where do we find a modicum of sanity in it all? Why, we can laugh. We laugh at the sheer, endless absurdity of it all.
She strummed distractedly at her lyre as her thoughts tread these disturbing paths.
Suddenly perking, Lyra felt the familiar approach through the skein of her magics. Finally, she thought. The great wolf strode into the clearing through the mists. Lyra blinked as the two expected visitors did not appear behind him. Rather, as he drew closer, she saw that two unconscious ponies were draped across his back. She half-rose in alarm. "What—" she began.
He interrupted her gruffly, shrugging the pair unceremoniously off him and onto the grass at his feet. "They were troublesome," he rumbled by way of simple explanation, clearly lacking the inclination to elaborate.
Well, this was unexpected. Lovely. But then… She glanced over to a particularly thick patch of grasses woven to conceal the still slumbering Twilight and Rarity, I suppose this somewhat simplifies things. For my part, at any rate.
"Does anything ever work out as planned?" she asked in a wistful, almost rhetorical tone.
The wolf gazed at her solemnly. "Never."
She paused, long and hard. "It was all a mistake, wasn't it?"
"Everything is, Lyra, sooner or later."
The haze of golden light radiated painfully behind her closed eyelids. Squinting hard, the ambient light abated, and she sighed in relief as the pounding in her head lessened slightly. Slowly, the intrusion of senses awakening began to demand more and more of her attention, even as she struggled to return to that blissful solace of oblivion. The warmth of the sun growing uncomfortably hot upon her back and the sweet sound of wind rustling the grasses all around her proved enough incentive to cycle her groggy consciousness through the "who-what-where" phases of awakening. In short order, memories of recent events flooded in and her eyes snapped open.
Twilight Sparkle raised her head, looking around in alarm. The scene before her did not mesh with what she last recalled before falling asleep to a full belly and the serene music of that odd, green Unicorn.
She was no longer in that peaceful glen that radiated a palpable sense of protection and peace.
A rumbling snore drew her attention to the curled mass of alabaster coat and purple mane that was her companion. She couldn't help but smirk a bit at the contrast of the prim and proper Rarity, normally so graceful and poised, now rumbling away like a jackhammer as she slept.
Rising, she was struck with how very refreshed she felt. She took stock and was amazed to discover all of her considerable wounds seemed to have been fully healed. She felt fresh, alive... and thoroughly confused. Where in Equastria were they? How did they get here? The Everfree, this most certainly was not - she felt reconnected to the magical stability of civilized Equestria.
Proceeding down the logical course of action, first thing was first—rousing Rarity. The Unicorn might know where they were; she had lived in the area and may know the terrain well enough to recognize their position.
"Rarity. Wake up," she said, nosing the slumbering mare.
She was rewarded by a distinctly unladylike snort and grumble from her friend.
"Rarity!" she said louder, prodding the Unicorn with her hoof. "Wake up!"
"Bwa—what?" Rarity blurted, startled from her sleep, raising her head and blearily meeting Twilight's gaze.
Twilight couldn't help but smirk a bit at the tousled mane and sloppy appearance of her friend. "Time to get up. It's early morning by the looks of it, but I have no idea where we are."
"Where we are? What do you—" she broke off as she looked around, taking in their surroundings. "Why, this is White Tail Wood! Just on the edge of Ponyville! However did we get here?"
Twilight grimaced. "Yeah, no idea. But we're close to Ponyville? Can you lead us back? How far is it?"
Rarity looked up and around, gauging their bearings. "Very close. Just 'round the corner actually."
"Well, that's a relief. Sorry to wake you so abruptly, but we'd better get going. How do you feel?"
"I…" Rarity cocked her head to the side. "I feel wonderful actually," she said in a tone of bewilderment.
"Me too. I'm really going to have to expand my studies. There's so much more to magic than I ever thought—Unicorn magics are inherently linear, a framework of will, effect, and application. What we experienced last night was almost… an inverse of that understanding. Almost cyclic in its manifestation…" she trailed off, mumbling to her herself for a moment, lost in the implications.
Rarity rose and shook herself. "Yes darling, that’s all well and good," she said, interrupting Twilight's ruminations, a habit of the purple Unicorn she was becoming increasingly familiar with. “But as you said, we need to get moving."
Twilight nodded, jarred from her thoughts. "Right, which way?"
Taking the lead, Rarity broke into a brisk canter with the reassuring knowledge of finally knowing where they were and how to get where they were going- home. The thought filled her with confidence and joy—things would be alright soon, back amongst the familiar. It wasn't long before they cleared the forest, the bright morning light falling around them; breaking into an all-out gallop across the wide grassy plains, the sunshine felt like a benediction.
By the time they made the edges of town, they were breathing heavily, the sweat from their brows burning into their eyes. So it was that they didn't hear the building shouts until the crowd had nearly surrounded them. The cacophony was deafening, ponies overriding one another in their rapid-fire exclamations.
"Thought you were dead!"
"Where did you all—"
"—where are the others?!"
"...guards everywhere, I don't—"
A voice, hard and commanding, cut through the din. "Make way! Now!"
Blinking away the sweat from her vision, Twilight took a moment to process what her eyes were telling her.
Approaching her was a stallion, adorned in armor from hoof to head, the gold of it glinting in the morning light. A cordon of the townsponies opened for his approach, but this clearly wasn't enough for him. "Disperse! Clear out! Go home, I don't care, but back off now, all of you," he ordered left and right, the mares and stallions cringing slightly under the fierce tone and unyielding glare. Snorting, he drew up before a still-panting Twilight. "Miss Sparkle. I am pleased to have found you. I had heard you and some others had gone into the Everfree Forest, yet here you are. Please, follow me."
Bemused at his words, yet relieved at his presence and all the familiar order it represented, she began to follow, pulling up to his side as a flood of questions vied for dominance in her mind. A victor didn't have time to make itself known, however; as she pulled up next to him, the sight previously denied her left those thoughts gasping in the dirt.
Ahead, in the open square before the Town Hall, were arrayed what Twilight, despite having lived her entire life within the walls of Canterlot, had rarely seen—a fully formed Elite Contingent of the Royal Guard. While the military sciences were at best an ancillary draw to her academic pursuits, she had nevertheless taken—and of course excelled at—the requisite courses that touched upon the subject matter of the modern Equestrian military. An Elite Contingent was unique in both its efficacy and composition; they were among the few quarters of the military that actually seemed to do anything, though what it is they got up to she was never privileged to be made aware of. She had merely noted them coming and going at all hours, and as far as she recalled, there were only a few such units active in all of Equestria.
The Contingent was comprised of seven heavy Earth ponies—her escort the eighth—their armor far from ceremonial, each bearing scars and grooves unique to its owner. These ponies were renowned to be the first in and the last out of any engagement. Four Pegasi were adorned in lighter armor, designed for agility and swift movement, extensions from their shoulders ribbing across the front angles of their wings, the razored edges glinting.
The final three wore no armor, at least none that could be seen, as dark brown cloaks hung about them. The sunburst sigil on the right breast marked them for what they were—Elite Mages of the Equestrian Military. Twilight was effectively trotting on autopilot as she drew closer.
Her escort drew her towards the cloaked three, one of whom spoke. "Sergeant, excellent. Take your Heavies and attend to some crowd-control."
The Heavy stomped a salute, glanced at his ponies, and they moved off to follow orders.
The tall Unicorn stepped forward, his coat a dark blue, white mane clipped short and curling about his horn. "Well. Twilight Sparkle. Nice of you to finally show up," he said, his tone curt and efficient.
Twilight found herself at a loss for a moment; this Unicorn knew her name. Not only that, but he implied he had been waiting for her. She mustered all the eloquence of her years of academic and arcane pursuit.
The Mage's brows rose when she did not immediately continue. "Right then. I'm afraid questions will have to wait, both for a safer location, and when your tongue decides to start working again. Now. I understand you have companions. Where are they?"
Okay. A direct question to answer. Much easier. "Yes, I—" Wait. Where was Rarity?! Looking about, she saw no sign of the alabaster beauty. "Um…"
Another pause as the Unicorn Mage visibly bit down on his frustration, "Lovely. Description please. Succinctly," he said, the last word slightly emphasized.
She gave it, as well as the name of her friend's place of business.
The Mage nodded to one of the Pegasi, and two took off towards the Carousel Boutique.
"And the others?"
Frowning, Twilight responded, "What do you mean?" Something felt… off about this.
"Miss Sparkle, I have specific orders. We are here to collect yourself, and five other mares. Two Pegasi, two Earth ponies, and one additional Unicorn. Aside from yourself, all residents of this town. You were the only one named and described. Tell me who, and where, they are."
"I… what is this? How did you know where I was, and what do the others have to do with anything!"
The Mage stepped forward, a slight frown angling down over his blue eyes. "My orders are… opaque, at best. I don't like bringing my men out here to collect a bunch of fillies while in the midst of what is quickly becoming the greatest crisis in our recent history. I don't like not knowing why I've been ordered to do so, and I especially don't like being cross-questioned and hamstrung by the ungrateful recipient of our protection. Now. Will you please—"
He got no farther. There was a shout from one of the Elite Pegasi, a flashing of eyes as all turned to the focus of his alarm—just enough time to register what appeared to be a small mountain dropping from the sky in a blur, and a shockwave knocking half the town off their hooves as the dragon slammed into the earth on the far side of town. In retrospect, it really was an incredible irony that, standing amidst an elite, highly trained fighting force of veterans, it was Twilight Sparkle who first broke from the shock. She had a particular reason, of course, for it wasn't until she watched the dragon nosing about, peering in the windows and rumbling low in his language, that she realized where he was. Specifically. Not just over on the other side of Ponyville; he was at the Library. That meant one thing to Twilight. "Spike!" she screamed, bolting forward in a full-out gallop.
A surprised curse and rapid flurry of orders lashed out behind her, and suddenly the ring of Earth pony Heavies were in full charge ahead of her, two blurs of gold flashed overhead, and the billowing cloaks of the Mages began to pull ahead of her. All converging on the Library.
In her panicked flight, Twilight overheard—but paid scant attention to—a running argument between two of the Mages just ahead of her. She caught something about "diplomacy" and "foreign relations" from one, the leader responding with "orders don't allow for," and something about "potential invasion". She frankly didn't give a damn what they were on about—Spike, the only brother she had ever known, was in the Library, and the great dragon's words back at the castle returned to haunt her: "He is precious to me." That was what he'd said, hadn't he? And now, here was one of his escorts, rooting about the Library! He was going to take Spike!
No, she thought with a sudden, grim determination. He was going to try.
A bolt of violet energy lashed out, cracking the air, throwing the galloping Mages off-canter as it streaked out below the Pegasi, between the Heavy guards, and slammed into the dragon’s side. He staggered back. One step.
Everything seemed to slow as the great beast turned his head, eyes narrowing.
Twilight caught a murmur from one of the Mages, "Oh shit."
Chapter 6 - “Gravity”
Chapter 8 - “Horizons”
Her feathers ruffled as she banked gracefully into the steady wind, the pressure of the cool air comforting beneath her wings, her long mane streaming out behind her. Heights had always been a bit of an issue for her, a fact that some of the crueler fillies and colts back in school had taken gleeful advantage of when they got bored. Not that it wasn’t odd, she’d be the first to admit—a Pegasus afraid of heights? She chuckled lightly, the irony not lost on her, before swallowing a gulp as her thoughts led her to acknowledge just how very high up she was. She’d never come this high by herself willingly. Fortunately, she did indeed have company.
Fluttershy leveled off and darted a glance to her left. The tips of long, midnight blue feathers stretched out next to hers, almost close enough to touch, as she flew alongside Princess Luna. The presence of the Alicorn was strangely comforting—she emanated a powerful feeling of serenity and assurance, and watching her fly... the Princess never seemed to have to flap her wings or exert any effort at all. Fluttershy doubted she could have even made it up here amongst the spatterings of alto-cumulus clouds had Luna not led her to the rising thermal near the lake.
Spiralling upward with the billowing drafts of warm air had been exhilarating, and she used the time to reflect on the events of that morning.
She had awoken before dawn, as was her custom for attending to the animals that had come to depend on her care over the years. There had been a moment of confusion as she blearily peered about at the unfamiliar stone walls and large bed she was nestled upon. She may well have devolved into a full-blown panic had it not been for the pink ball of riotous-maned pony curled up next to her, snoring lightly and talking in her sleep. As it was, the reassuring presence of her friend had held her lurch of fear in abeyance while her sleep-addled mind struggled to catch up with recent events.
With a shocked little cry, the visceral memories of being crushed beneath tons of stone washed over her. Whipping her head back with a panicked gasp, she looked over her body and was amazed to find herself whole and undamaged, with no injuries to substantiate her horrific recollections; not even a feather was out of place as she daintily fluttered her wings in careful inspection. After the collapse of the hallway, she remembered... nothing. With the tiniest of frowns, Fluttershy began to carefully extricate herself from the multiple layers of blanket she was nestled in.
Wide awake, she gently eased herself off the bed and tiptoed across the floor, so as not to disturb the slumbering Pinkie Pie. Nopony would have accused her of being the adventurous type, but she was up, and at least Applejack should be awake... wait. Applejack? Vague impressions of the hardy workpony flit through her scattered memories of last night but... nothing distinctive, just that her friend had been shouting and distressed. Shaking her head, she carefully eased the door closed and turned to trot down the hall to her friend’s quarters.
The stone corridors were frigid with the pre-dawn air; Fluttershy rubbed her wings against her sides as she made her way to Applejack’s room. Nosing the door open with a timid query, “Applejack? Are you awake?” She was bewildered to find the room empty, the bed neatly made. Frowning slightly in confusion, she turned to the next door down—Rarity’s room. Propriety abandoned with the growing knot of unease in her stomach, she pushed through the door. Empty. “What’s going on? Where is everypony?”
Trotting to the window, she peered out in hopes of finding some sign of her missing friends. In the courtyard below she caught movement- somepony was walking through the grasses across the wide field. It was still quite dark, so she had to squint to make out... Princess Luna! Oh! She’ll know where everypony is! Fluttershy turned and, exiting the room, began to trot brusquely down the halls to the exit. She almost tripped over herself as she passed into the main entranceway- rubble was strewn about, blackened scorch marks scarring the walls in random profusion. The great stained-glass window high above she had so admired yesterday was now broken out, the shattered pieces littering the floor in multi-colored shards. “Oh my...”
Fluttershy broke into a gallop; she did not like this scene that both looked and felt like a war-zone. The huge atrium was cloying with a sense of oppressive violence that overwhelmed the timid Pegasus, a violence that triggered an atavistic instinct to escape, to get as far away as possible. The large main doors were wide open and she galloped straight through them, taking deep breaths of the cold, open air in relief. Looking about, she saw the Princess still casually strolling into the middle of the field, and she began to move toward her. Her ears perked at the songs of the morning birds that filled the treeline, their jaunty tunes calming her somewhat. Closing to hailing distance of the Princess, she pulled up short as she picked up a palpable feeling of... expectancy, that lay heavy in the air.
Luna was standing tall, rigid as a statue, her eyes closed as she drew in deep, even breaths. The space around her began to shine with small motes of light as her horn burst into a brilliant radiance; Fluttershy felt the hackles on her neck prickle with the rising energy. A small, strained sound broke from the Alicorn’s muzzle, and she slowly began to raise her horn upwards, as though struggling against some great invisible weight. Fluttershy had never seen magic like this—not that she was terribly familiar with Unicorns and their predilection—but the sight before her was unlike any she had encountered before. Waves of power rolled off Luna; suddenly, bursting from the mountain range on the far horizon, the sun flared into existence, shepherding the darkness of the night to the far horizon and casting its life-giving warmth across Equestria.
Fluttershy belatedly realized her jaw was hanging on its hinges; she had never seen Princess Celestia raise the sun before. In fact, the Summer Sun Celebration was to be her first time witnessing the famous spectacle and she had been excited about the opportunity. So taken aback by what she had just seen, it was a moment before she noted that Luna had lowered herself to the grass and was breathing heavily, this time as though working to catch her breath.
Sheer wonder swept aside her usual reticence and she cantered forward joyfully.
“Oh, Princess! That was amazing!” she called out in admiration.
A startled sound burst from the Princess as she jerked in surprise, looking up with wide eyes.
Fluttershy pulled to a quick halt, slipping a bit on the wet grass. “Oh! I’m so sorry!” she squeaked. “I didn’t mean to scare you... that was just so wonderful! I never got to see Princess Celestia raise the sun! It was wonderful and... I... um, that is...” she trailed off, her excitement giving way to a consuming embarrassment as the Moon Princess just looked at her, expressionless. She began to curl up on herself behind the obscuring curtains of her pink bangs.
Luna rose with a small smile. “It’s quite all right little one, I’m just... not quite used to having anypony around. Sometimes it’s easy to forget I’m not alone anymore,” she finished softly.
Fluttershy had not the faintest idea how to respond to this, though her heart went out to Luna in a wash of empathy. The call to heal, to reach out and give of herself to anypony, to any animal in pain was as natural to her as breathing, and every bit as compelling. “Um... what was it like? Being up there all alone for so long? It must have been so hard...”
Luna looked up, her eyes resting on the fiery orb that hung in the sky. “What was it like? How can I even begin to describe it in terms you can understand? Mortality really is a gift, you know,” she said, scuffing at the grasses with a hoof. “Your kind have no conception of everything just... never ending. I hear the wishes in their dreams you know- the fear of dying, the longing for immortality... they have no idea what they’re asking for. And if they did? Should they receive their heart’s desire? They’d curl up on themselves in the abject horror of what they wrought. The centuries would soon begin to pass as if they were days, all they had ever come to love turned to dust before their eyes. Mountains would rise where verdant plains once rolled, oceans once teeming with life fade away, leaving naught but scorched deserts and the bleached bones of civilizations. Without the release of death, everything becomes ephemeral, both what is remembered and all that is cursed to remember...” The princess shook her mane out, enveloping the trembling Pegasus with an amaranthine gaze. “Do you understand yet Fluttershy? We envy your kind.
“...In the wake of all of that, my time spent on the moon was merely an... interlude, I suppose you could say.” Luna narrowed her eyes at the sun. “Though it was not without its trials. Solitude is a wonderful thing Fluttershy, when it is intentionally sought. As an imposition, there are few things more unpleasant...” Luna trailed off, as though she had forgotten the presence of the little pink-maned Pegasus entirely.
Fluttershy was at an utter loss for words... the wound she sensed here was so... vast. Inwardly flailing, she unwittingly stumbled upon the one solace that mortals could offer the gods- distraction.
“Um, Princess? I’m sorry, but where is everypony? Where are my friends?”
Luna blinked, pausing in thought for a moment. “...Would you like to join me for a morning flight Fluttershy? There are some things we need to talk about.”
Near midday, the pair slipped down through the clouds, gliding casually back toward the castle. Details began to resolve as they drew closer and revealed one of the Dragons sitting in the vast veranda, head tilted back as he patiently tracked their approach. Fluttershy released a squeak as she realized she was being scrutinized by the enormous beast and reactively flared her wings to drift back behind Luna, who turned her head with a light chuckle.
“It’s all right, my dear, Sali is a very old friend of mine. He would never harm you. He’s actually a very gentle soul... but it appears he wishes to speak with me about something, would you mind giving us a moment? I’m sure Pinkie Pie is wondering where you are, and you have much to discuss.”
Although Fluttershy attempted to keep the relief from her features, a surreptitious smirk from the Moon Princess suggested that she might as well have tried to hide her wings. “Al-Alright, Princess. I’ll go find her. Tell... tell your friend I said ‘good morning,’” she said with a brave little smile.
Luna giggled. “I’ll be certain to. See you soon.” With that, she banked off, drifting gracefully through the air towards the great Dragon.
As she fluttered to a landing, Saliant bowed his head and intoned somberly, “My Lady. Good day to you.”
Luna rejoined with a playful curtsy. “Good day to you as well, my Lord.”
The pair stared at one another for a moment of haughty appraisal before breaking into a laugh.
“Never gets old, does it?” he rumbled mirthfully.
“Never,” she replied with a warm smile. “Though I take it you’re here for more than mid-day greetings.” She paused and cocked her head to the side. “Something weighs on you, Sali. What’s wrong?”
The ancient Dragon hesitated before replying, “There has been a... complication.”
“A complication,” Luna repeated leadingly when he didn’t continue.
“Aye, just so.” His wings shifted nervously against his sides and the tip of his huge tail began to flick about erratically.
Luna frowned, her concern growing.
“Sali... I haven’t seen you this nervous since you were little more than a hatchling, about to embark on your first hunt. What happened?”
The dragon’s massive chest expanded as he pulled in a deep breath. If Luna were just about any other pony, extremely pressing thoughts about the maelstrom of flame that generally followed such an inhalation would be crowding her mind. As it was, she merely raised an eyebrow and waited patiently.
“I’m afraid young Demetrius has acted precipitously. When it became evident that a confrontation was likely to take place, he took it upon himself to go into Ponyville and ensure the safety of the young one there.”
Luna’s voice turned hard.
“He did what.”
Sali raised his hands up defensively. “He acted in concern for a Clan member. If any is to blame, it is my loose tongue. I spoke of my concerns freely to them both. I should have known he would take it upon himself to act on my behalf.” Pride flared in the Elder Dragon’s eyes as he remembered himself. “And even if I had, I would not have stayed his wings. I will not have one of our own sit unprotected and helpless in the midst of a contest of goddesses. Such things rarely end well, even for my kind.”
Luna huffed her displeasure. “Oh, do calm down, Sali. I’m hardly going ‘spit my bit’, as they say these days...
“However, this is not good news, and your reaction tells me there’s more to this story.” she said expectantly, with no small amount of foreboding lacing the words.
“Sadly, you are correct. As I said—complications arose. There were Equestrian guards in the town, and... Twilight Sparkle was there as well. When she saw Demetrius speaking with the young one, she attacked him. He... responded in kind.”
Luna’s eyes went wide. “No,” she said breathlessly, “tell me she’s not—”
Sali gestured to forestall the Princess’ alarm. “No, my Lady, she is alive and well...”
Luna exhaled a shaky sigh of relief. “Thank the Endless. We’re already walking the edge with this.”
The Dragon continued as though she hadn’t spoken, “Though I’m afraid the same cannot be said for the town itself and... many of the guards, who followed suit and attacked as well.”
The silence stretched out, and if ancient Dragons could sweat, this one would have been.
Finally, Luna spoke. “Salient. Elaborate.”
“My Lady... you must understand. The ponies broke peace and drew first blood. Demetrius acted in defense of himself and the young one. He only—”
Luna’s hoof struck the ground and a deafening crack filled the air, as though a bolt of lightning had broken right above their heads. Her eyes were hard, bright as emeralds.
“How many died, Sali?”
Salient stared at the ground, unable to meet her regard, and rumbled, “Many.”
Luna turned abruptly away from him, visibly trembling in the effort to control herself. Dragons were exceptionally sensitive creatures, and powerfully magical. As such, Salient could clearly feel her struggle, both her emotional distress and the immeasurable surges of power that she struggled to contain. It had literally been ages since any of the world’s races had freely preyed upon Pony-kind, and Saliant shivered at the stark reminder before him of precisely why that was. He harbored no doubts that this diminutive, Equine-shaped being could obliterate him with a thought, should she choose to do so. Only his courage and pride kept him still, stoically awaiting her judgement.
As abruptly as shutting off a faucet, the turmoil emanating from Luna ceased, and she turned back to look up at him, her expression inscrutable.
“This will not happen again, Sali. Am I understood?”
The Dragon nodded.
“And what of Rainbow Dash and Applejack? They were not with my sister’s protegé?”
“Demetrius reported no sign of them my Lady.”
“Very well. Thank you, Sali. I trust young Demetrius is unharmed?”
“He is well, my Lady. He bears a new scar proudly.”
Luna surreptitiously rolled her eyes and huffed. “Stop calling me that, Sali. It’s not amusing when you mean it, and this is no time for old jokes. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are some new issues that need attending to.”
The princess was already lost in thought as the great dragon dipped his head in a short bow and turned, launching himself into the air, his vast wings pulling him effortlessly skyward.
As soon as he was gone, Luna’s gaze hardened once more. If she chose to put the power into it, the stare would have been enough to shatter stone; she turned this regard to the drifting sun and began to hum a light tune. It was a very, very old lullaby.
Bile. The acidic taste of it filled her mouth. A wave of nausea stole through her, and she bit her lip in protest, attempting to hold her stomach down. The world was spinning. No... her world was... moving. As awareness slowly returned to her, she felt the rush of strong winds pulling at her mane and the rhythmic motions of the platform she was laid upon. Her ears worked to translate the sounds of an argument underway: the voices were male, their tones grim and angry. Slowly blinking her eyes, she didn’t have the energy to make sense of the exchange just yet. Twilight Sparkle regained consciousness gradually, finding herself curled up in the corner of a flying carriage. Ironically, her first clear impression was that this was not a royal carriage; the design was sleek, the lines more angular and hard—this transport was meant for speed, not comfort.
"Nice to have you back with us, darling."
Twilight snapped her head around in surprise, the sudden movement eliciting a wave of vertigo and pain. "Rarity! You're okay! What's going on? What happened? I—" she broke off, nausea hitting her once more as it threatened to turn her entrails inside out and force them up and out of her muzzle.
"Oh, you poor dear. That bump on your head looks just awful." New concern flared in Rarity's large blue eyes. "Oh my! Twilight, are you feeling dizzy? What's the last thing you remember? How many hooves am I holding up!"
Twilight raised a hoof to hold the overbearing Unicorn out of her space as she replied, "I'm… well, I'm not fine, Rarity, but I don't think I have a concussion. And you're only holding up two hooves, that's not much of a test. Just… give me a moment please, and room to breathe." As Rarity complied, Twilight turned her gaze to the knot of tightly clustered Elites at the far end of the platform. Their voices were low and she couldn't make out the words over the rush of the wind, but the undertone of the discussion was clear.
"What are they arguing about? For that matter, where are the rest of them?" Twilight raised a hoof to her pounding head and flinched as it made contact with a searingly painful spot; she pulled it back to see a splotch of sticky blood. "And what the hell happened to me?!"
Rarity cast a withering glare at the soldiers, who seemed to be ignoring the pair entirely in their private huddle. "They happened to you. They happened to me too, for that matter. I was just coming back from seeing to Sweetie Belle - I left her with Berry Punch, do you know her? Lovely mare, old friend, bit of a lush these days - and was on my way back to you, when that dragon came dropping out of the sky! The next thing I knew, everypony was rushing at him, and somepony threw a spell at him! Well, he didn't take kindly to that, and then… Oh, it was terrible, Twilight! You really don't remember any of that?"
Twilight frowned, forced to entertain the possibility that perhaps she did have a mild concussion after all, if chunks of her memory were missing. But that didn't explain how she had actually been concussed. "Not much. I don—" she broke off in horror. “Spike! Where is he?!”
Rarity looked on the verge of tears, her ears laid flat against her head. “The dragon took him Twilight. I’m so sorry. When everypony started attacking—a rather foolish impulse I must say—he went… berserk. It was terrible. I knew Dragons were powerful, but I had no idea what they were capable of. He just shrugged off the waves of magic like they were so much fabric! The only thing that actually hurt him was an attack from one of the Pegasi: he dove in with those wing blades and managed to cut along the dragon’s side. He… didn't make it out though.” Rarity’s eyes glazed over with a vacant look. “I've… never seen such horror in all my life. The dragon’s head just snapped around and he… he bit the Pegasus guard nearly in half! And then he started breathing fire. Five of the Earth pony guards were caught in the first wave. They just… melted. They didn't even have time to scream...” Rarity trailed off and looked up to meet Twilight’s eyes beseechingly.
“Twilight, I… I thought I was a cosmopolitan mare. I thought I knew what the world was like but… but now, I've seen things that change a pony. I used to think in gossamer and silk… now… there's blood everywhere. I just—" Rarity couldn't continue, her voice breaking as tears filled her eyes. Her understanding of things—how things were supposed to be—had been irrevocably shattered, and nopony walks away from a shattered paradigm comfortably. It was, after all, her entire world she had lost. She could never go back. She had struggled to convey all of this, but some things were simply ineffable. Some things must be intuited in the end, and only a compassionate friend can bridge that gap—something Twilight finally understood.
Twilight reached out and pulled Rarity into a crushing embrace, and they wept together, poured their shared misery into one another's embrace, for at this moment there was no other comfort to be found.
After a time, when she had no more tears to shed, Twilight returned to reality. She opened her eyes to find the remaining Elite forces were all staring at her, rather unpleasantly. The apparent leader, the head Mage she had spoken to before the Dragon came, muttered something to his soldiers, and approached. He stood looming above her, his eyes flat and face utterly expressionless, before hunkering down before her with a sigh. For a moment, he just looked back at her in silence.
When he spoke, the hardness of his voice startled her. "Miss Sparkle. I want you to know, if my orders were not otherwise, I'd let my ponies throw you right over the edge." Though his face remained impassive, rage began to creep into his tone. "Thanks to you, fully half of my squad now lies in so many pieces across a backwater settlement. So help me, the next time you put my soldiers in danger, if you cross one hoof out of line, I'll do more than simply knock you over the head."
Twilight was utterly taken aback by his venom and for a moment could find no words. Her face drained of color as she processed the implication. "I… I don't understand. You hit me?"
He scowled at her words, as though she were mocking him. "Are you saying you don't remember what happened in the town? What you did?"
"No," she whispered. "I don't."
He snorted derisively. "Wonderful. Now I get to play nursemaid. Yes, I knocked you out. You completely lost it back there. You incited an attack on a creature that it takes a full battalion to deal with. We are not a full battalion, as you may have noticed. In fact, we are now less than half of what we were when we arrived." His jaw bunched and his eyes burned into her. "Their blood is on your hooves, and thanks to you, on mine. They were my responsibility, and I failed them."
He fell silent, glaring at the floor of the platform. Twilight, guilt and confusion overwhelming her, was completely at a loss for words. Fortunately, Rarity was not, and Twilight started in surprise when she spoke in a voice low and hard as steel. "Touch her, and you die."
Both Twilight and the Mage stared at her, shocked. Rarity raised her head up to look squarely at the Mage, her eyes narrowed dangerously.
"You think I'm joking? Try me."
The Mage’s recovery was impressively swift for having just received a death threat. "Finally, some realism. No, Miss Rarity, I don't doubt you. However, you'll find you're being overly generous with your threats, as my orders are to return you and your friends to Canterlot safely." His expression turned contemplative. "Speaking of which, I think it's high time you leveled with me. Your story," he said, lifting a hoof to point at Twilight, "is at odds with the intel I was given. But it's clear you haven't been entirely forthcoming. Now, however, we have time, and I need to know what you know. Starting with the locations of the others you’ve been avoiding telling me about.”
Twilight and Rarity shared a glance that spoke volumes. Nodding to one another, they returned their attention to the Mage, and haltingly, began to talk...
The Mage just sat there, brow raised nearly to crown his horn.
“You... honestly expect me to believe all of that, “ he stated flatly, raising a hoof to rub his forehead. “So... let’s just recap here, shall we? A demonic entity of some kind whose return was foretold by an old mare’s tale has come to pass. Said creature has taken the form of an Alicorn and claims to be Princess Celestia’s sister. ‘It’ has some manner of pet demon locked away in its dungeon, has draconic allies, and is in possession of the remaining ponies my orders obligate me to retrieve, several of whom may have actually joined its side of their own cognizance... all of whom are in a dilapidated castle in the heart of the Everfree Forest. Did I miss anything, or does that about sum it up?”
Twilight bit her lip. “Look, I know how this sounds, but it’s the truth! And...” she trailed off as something occurred to her. “Wait. If you don’t know any of this, then what the hay are you doing here in the first place?”
The Mage compressed his muzzle, lips thinning. “Hmm. Just a moment,” he said helpfully, before standing up and turning back to his squad. “Scroll, I need you to send a spark message to HQ: Lightning One to run escort interference. Add our course, disposition, and ETA.”
The other Mage nodded a sharp acknowledgment, turning to face the outline of Canterlot in the distance and reared up to place his front hooves on the edge of transport. His horn lit up in an intense verdant glow and a ball of contained energy slowly formed from the tip, before collapsing in on itself and disappearing in a flash. He turned back to the captain with a confused expression. “Done, sir. But... L-One? Just her? Why not the rest of the team?”
“Because they’ve been sent off to trail those black-suited Pegasi the Council scryed out, which you’d know if you’d read the file. Which you can be damned sure we’ll talk about when we get back,” the captain finished with a growl.
Scroll’s ears laid back and one of the Heavies next to him rumbled out a low chuckle, prodding him in the ribs. “Went an bucked yerself on that one, eh, greenhoof? Next time, learn ta’ keep your mouth shut. Never know when an officer expects ya to know stuff.” The remaining two Heavy veterans nodded in sage agreement.
Rolling his eyes, the captain returned his attention to the two fillies, who were staring at each other and looking distinctly more pale than they had been a moment ago.
He cleared his throat and asked, “Is there something else you’d like to share?”
Rarity met his gaze and hesitantly asked, “Did you say... ‘black-suited Pegasi’?”
The Mage nodded slowly. “I did, which is the single piece of credibility lending itself to your entire story, aside from the Dragon. A few days ago the High Council alerted the Elite Contingents of an ‘oddity’. Apparently they had scryed out a group of five Pegasi in black uniforms all crossing Equestrian borders at high speed. Their individual flight paths correlate back to the edge of the Everfree as their point of origin, and their destinations—if they don’t alter course—are the respective capital cities of bordering nations. Needless to say, this perked some ears. Why do you ask? What aren’t you telling me?”
“Sir!” came a shout from one of the Heavies at the end of the platform.
As the Mage looked over, Rarity leaned in to whisper hurriedly in Twilight’s ear, her eyes flicking back to the heavily stuffed pair of saddlebags laying behind them.
“What about the Elements of Harmony? Why didn’t you mention them?”
Twilight flicked her ear and jerked her head in a furitive negative.
“I’ll tell you later. Something just doesn’t feel right about all this,” she hissed from the corner of her muzzle.
A poignant segment of the soldier’s conversation had both mares snapping their heads around in unison. “We’ve got company. Hard to make out at this distance, but it looks like one of those black-suited traitors is coming up on us from the forest.”
One of the Pegasi pulling the chariot called back, “Lighting One in-bound!”
A bleary-eyed Pegasus raised her head, her jaw creaking wide in a huge yawn. She hated mornings. Repeatedly smacking her dry mouth, she raised a hoof to rub the sleep from her eyes. At this moment, the best young flier in Equestria had one thing, and one thing only, on her mind: Coffee. Now. Except... this wasn’t her cloud home, was it?
Looking around at the tall grasses waving in the light breeze, the sunlight pouring down through the trees, she thought, Nope. Definitely not home. So then what the hell—Dash lurched to unsteady hooves as memory rushed back to her. AJ! Wolf! Where—her panic proved short-lived, for slumbering contentedly a few feet away was the object of her concern, cowpony hat tilted askew and covering her face; in her relief, Dash released a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. But... how? The admission stung her pride, but she knew that wolf had had her dead to rights. There had been no contest—she hadn’t even seen him move. With a shudder, she recalled the look in those eyes as she had launched herself at him... that utter detachment and unshakable certainty of a natural-born predator. Scant recollections of the night past washed over her: she recalled waking a couple of times, catching glimpses of a mint green Unicorn. The massive Wolf sat placidly by her side, the two engaged in a conversation Dash couldn’t remember. The haunting music of the Unicorn’s lyre that washed over her attempts to rouse, like a low tide roaring in.
Shaking herself from those dark thoughts, Dash stretched out her wings and legs, deciding to let Applejack get a bit more rest while she figured out where in the hay they were. They were definitely still in the Everfree, though that was the best she could determine from the ground—it all looked the same to her. Launching into the air, a few powerful flaps of her wings had her catapulting up toward the canopy. Finding a thin spot in the foliage, she slid through into the sharp, clear light of a sunny day. Momentarily blinded, she hovered for a moment, rubbing a hoof across her eyes. Blinking rapidly against the intense glare, her vision cleared and the vista unfolded before her. Huh. The forest ends just over there! I think... yeah, we’re not too far out from Ponyville! Wait... what’s that?
Squinting, Dash peered into the distance. Something glinting in the sunlight had caught her eye... but it wasn’t on the ground- it was in the air, flying low and moving at a fair clip. Dash raised a hoof to shield her eyes and bit the tip of her tongue in concentration... at first she thought it might be a royal carriage, but, no; it was weirdly shaped, a configuration she’d never seen before. She could, however, make out that two Pegasi in golden armor were pulling it through the sky. That was when she saw it—a flash of streaked purple mane blowing in the wind on the passenger-laden platform. Twilight! She had found her, finally! And she was getting away! This was not good.
“Applejack!” Dash yelled as she burst back down through the canopy. She hadn’t wanted to wake her friend so abruptly, but there was no time to waste. “Applejack! Get up!” she shouted again, landing a moment later next to her slowly rousing companion and prodding her urgently.
Applejack looked about her groggily as sleep pulled back. “Wha-Where are we sugarcube? What in tarnation! What time is it?!” The mere notion of sleeping in to this hour—the sun was high enough for it to be nearly noon—went against every grain of her deeply held pride in years of working the farm from sunup to sundown. How in Equestria had she slept in so late?!
Nearly vibrating in her impatience, Dash gave her no time to ponder. “Doesn’t matter. AJ, I saw Twilight,” she said in a rush, pointing her hoof due west. “She’s hooked up with some royal guards, they’re flying toward Canterlot right now; we need to move it before they get away!”
In the rush of emotions upon hearing they had finally found Twilight, AJ still had to frown. Royal guards... The thought was more than worrisome. Yes, they were technically ‘on a mission’ for Celestia’s sister, a rightful Princess of Equestria, but... did Celestia’s government know that? Did Celestia know that, wherever she was? Things were not looking good. Twilight was close to Celestia, and she’d had a... less than neighborly experience with Princess Luna, not to mention Rainbow. A deep seated feeling of unease nestled in the pit of Applejack’s stomach at the thought of rushing out to meet Twilight and her escort. This could turn bad, real easy.
Looking up to Rainbow Dash, the look of impatience couldn’t be more clear on the brash Pegasus’ face. Applejack sighed inwardly—there was nothin’ for it at this point, but she had to try to talk some level sense into Dash one more time. Reaching over, she planted a firm hoof on Dash’s shoulder and faced her squarely. She felt the her friend tense under the touch.
“Dash, Ah know what the stakes are here. An’ I need’ta make sure you do too. We ain’t got no clue what the situation is over there- Twilight could be captive, or she could be with ‘em willin’, but either way ya need to keep yer head. Remember how she took off? Rainbow, she was scared.”
Dash scowled, outrage blooming, and Applejack rushed to continue before she could interrupt—the ‘Fluttershy’ argument plain on Rainbow’s face. “Somethin’ happened to her that night, an’ damnit all, Ah’m askin’ you, let’s try ta’ settle this friendly-like. An’ Ah dunno ‘bout you, but Ah don’t wanna go attackin’ royal guards fer no reason.” Applejack stared pleadingly into the cyan mare’s angry eyes. Her tone softened as she said, “C’mon, sugarcube. Can ya honestly tell me ya ain’t worried about Twilight at all?”
While the scowl was still firmly in place across Dash’s brow, her eyes turned thoughtful and lost a bit of their edge as she sighed and said, “Alright AJ. I hear you. I promise to hear her out, okay?”
Applejack raised an eyebrow.
“Okay!” Dash exclaimed, rolling her eyes. “I admit it, something weird happened that night, an’ maybe she had a reason for what she did. And yes, maybe I am a little bit worried about her, alright?”
“Cain’t say fairer than that, sugarcube. Let’s go.”
Applejack made to move toward a thin trail snaking off through the trees in the direction Dash had pointed, but was forestalled by yet another surprise.
“AJ, we don’t have time to go by hoof. We’re close to the edge of the forest, but not close enough. You’re gonna... have’ta ride me.” As pressing as the situation was, Dash couldn’t help but feel her face burning as the words left her mouth. Applejack wasn’t helping matters either, staring at her blankly like she’d just... Well, like she’d just asked Applejack to ride her.
“I’m serious! There’s no other way to catch up to them! If we try to run through this forest they’ll be long gone before we even clear the edge!”
“What makes ya think ya can even carry me, Dash? Ah ain’t no li’l filly ya know,” AJ said dubiously.
“Puh-leaz, AJ. Totally not a problem. Now come on, every minute we stand here Twilight gets farther away with the Elements!”
With her trademark look which somehow managed to convey both skepticism and suppressed amusement, Applejack reared up to rest her forelegs across Dash’s back. “Er... Jus’ how is this supposed to work again?” she asked of her would-be mount.
“Ugh! Just—Oh, hell with it,” Dash grumbled and promptly laid herself down on the soft grass. “Now just stand over me, an’ when I get up, wrap your hooves around my neck, okay?”
“...Right,” Applejack drawled, as she positioned herself above her rainbow-maned friend.
Dash rose, flushing brightly as she felt Applejack’s taut form stretched out atop her.
“Uh, Dash? Is somethin’ wrong with yer wings? They’re, uh, vibratin’ somethin’ fierce... are you—”
“Not one. More. Word, AJ, or goddess help me I’ll leave you in a tree,” Dash growled between clenched teeth.
A series of choked-off ‘snerking’ sounds came from behind her head, but she felt Applejack’s hooves wrap around her neck all the same. It didn’t help matters that Applejack, in her oh so cleverly disguised mirth, was now quivering against her with each shock of suppressed laughter. This was unbearable, and soon there would be a reckoning. Oh yes.
For now, Dash savagely shook her head, snapped her wings out to their full length and growled, “Hang on,” before abruptly launching herself into the air.
Applejack had been right—she was not a light pony. In fact, she was a damned heavy pony, having developed layer upon layer of corded muscle from her years of dedicated apple bucking. Dash was sorely tempted to make a fat joke as she struggled up towards the canopy, but given the fact that Applejack had such a firm grip about her neck... now might not be the best time. Later.
Dash was getting a bit winded as they finally cleared the trees, but the hard part was pretty much over. Now that she had some altitude, and wasn’t straining to lift the both of them straight up, the wind and forward momentum would do a fair part of the work, though her wings were going to be pissed tomorrow. With a sigh of relief, she canted her wings to catch the steady breeze and took off in pursuit of the distant carriage.
Before long, the pair were drawing close enough to their quarry to make out the individual forms of the passengers. Sure enough, there was Twilight, and Rarity was with her as well. In the distance, high above the thin wisps of low-lying clouds, AJ saw something through her wind-streaked vision. Something... odd. The clouds and air were deforming in the streaming flow of a conical heat wave, as though something moving fast had just passed through. She was about to mention this... thing, to Dash, when an exclamation from the Pegasus she was riding cut her off.
“Shit, they’re descending, picking up speed. We must’ve been spotted. Hold on!”
Applejack tightened her grip just in time, as Dash angled down sharply, burning off all of the hard-earned altitude in a rush of wind as she dove, picking up speed and leveling off a bare ten feet above the ground.
Dash was confused at the move. Are they... about to bank? They are! Why the hell would they dive—
An alarmed shout next to her ear and a flash from the corner of her eye was all the warning she had, before an electric-orange blur moving at an incredible velocity clipped into her. The strike was not a full-bodied collision; rather, the glancing blow at high speed hit her at just the right angle to obliterate any semblance of control she had, sending her into a flat spin amidst a wash of pain.
It felt like her shoulder had been ripped right off. Worse, Applejack had been torn loose from Dash’s back in the impact, and she hit the ground hard, sending up a cloud of dust as she rolled to a stop. Dash wanted to call out her name, to rush to her side, make sure she was alright. She was denied all of these things as she caught a streak of movement—again from the very edge of her vision. This Pegasus was attacking from her blind spots. Dash had the barest second to evade—wrenching her back in a strained arch, her wings surging, she executed a snapping roll on a knife’s edge.
The orange blur shot past, barely missing her and disappearing around a nearby puff of cloud. Shooting a glance down at Applejack, she saw her friend was slowly rising to her hooves, shaking herself off as she stumbled faithfully toward where her worn Stetson had fallen. Relief and focus washed over Rainbow, one after the other. Applejack was alright. Now it was time to deal with this cowardly buzzard that only attacks from behind.
Eyes narrowed in fury, her wings pounded the air as she gave chase. Dash reached down to tighten the black straps on her forelegs, cinching the armored barding tighter. Adrenaline and rage burned through her veins as she neared the cloud where the sneaky bastard had disappeared. He was probably lurking just out of sight, waiting to pounce on her when she came around the side. Well screw that. Wait’ll he sees—
The cloud erupted right in her face in a burst of obscuring steam, blinding her as effectively as if a smoke bomb had just gone off. Dash felt the breath knocked out of her as both the Pegasus’ leading hooves sunk deeply into her stomach. Spittle flew from her muzzle as she was hurled backwards. The blow was vicious, but Dash had other matters on her reeling mind—she had recognized her enemy in the split-second that they were nose to nose.
No way. There’s no way! she thought in stunned disbelief. Spitfire?!
A Wonderbolt. One of her heroes. There was no mistaking that distinctive uniform, not for her. For as long as she could remember, she had longed to just meet them, even dared to dream of being part of the team one glorious day. Now, the stark reality that her greatest idol, her aspiration, appeared to be actively trying to kill her was just... too much to process.
So she didn’t. She didn’t even try. As it was, she was cartwheeling backwards through the air, and her immediate survival took precedence over all else. Flaring her wings, she slid out of the tumble and into an elliptical glide, arching back up to gain lost altitude and scanning all about to locate Spitfire.
There she was—high left, banking hard and trying, again, to come in at Dash from behind. Not this time, Dash thought grimly as she maintained course and looking left and right, acting as though she hadn’t spotted her opponent. Sure enough, Spitfire slipped fully into her assumed blind-spot and dove. Dash counted down, having judged the distance as best she could; this was going to be close. Three... Two... One... Dash jinked hard to her left and flipped about, her rear hooves already lashing out.
She had mistimed by a hair. Spitfire saw the move coming and, while she didn’t have time to get fully clear, managed to dip a wing and roll underneath the blow that could well have crushed her chest. Instead, the hard edge of one of Dash’s hooves slashed across her shoulder, tearing away a strip of tight uniform and opening a shallow gash. The maneuver left both Pegasi stranded in the air for a moment, their speed and momentum fully spent as they flapped their wings hard just to stay airborne.
Spitfire spun about, taking off in a flash, clearly favoring the shoulder Dash had injured. Before she had time to consider the move, Dash was off in pursuit, trailing her foe. Spitfire glanced back, a confident smirk sliding across her face to find she was being chased, and poured on the speed.
Holy shit she’s fast, Dash thought as the Pegasus took off like a shot. Despite everything, despite all of the madness that had occurred in the past week, Dash felt an answering grin hard on her muzzle. Her blood boiled in defiance, and here, right in front of her, was the best challenge she could have ever asked for. This was it—her chance to prove herself, finally. She slid into Spitefire’s wake and powered after her. Spitfire took note of Dash’s pursuit and banked hard to the right before fully inverting and taking a nose dive straight down into a tight, spiraling corkscrew, trying to throw her opponent out of her slipstream. Dash mirrored the maneuvers to perfection, actually gaining a few yards on the orange Pegasus. Spitfire glanced back again, and Dash caught the look of incredulity on the Wonderbolt’s face.
Applejack stood, her hooves unsteady beneath her, recovering from the rough tumble she’d taken. “What in Equestria—” she broke off as she looked up. Her heart lurched up into her throat as she saw Rainbow engaged in a vicious aerial duel with another Pegasus. The two were moving too fast, too erratically, for her to get much of a clear look, but as it turned out, she had problems of her own. The carriage was banking low and around... back toward her. The two gilded Pegasi drawing it touched down in an explosion of dust at the hard landing. From the back jumped three of the biggest, meanest looking stallions she had ever seen. She nickered. Oh horseapples.
The slalom-like chase had taken the two Pegasi far above the ground, the trees below now just a green blanket across the landscape. Without warning, Spitfire stopped her evasive maneuvers, looked back to throw a glare at Dash, and dove. Straight down. Dash followed without a moment’s hesitation; two blurs descending from the clouds—one the color of fire, the other an extended line of rainbow hues, streaking down from the heavens. Dash felt that familiar resistance begin to form up around her and she thrust both hooves forward to press against it. She was the fastest Pegasus alive, and she was about to fucking prove it.
Through the tunnel vision of the compressed air around her, Dash caught sight of something that froze her heart. Applejack: On the ground, surrounded by three huge stallions in golden armor, one of them pulling out a rope while the others pummelled her mercilessly into submission. In her shock she failed to notice the split-second in which Spitfire flared her wings. As she flashed past, the orange Pegasus wrapped her forelegs around Dash’s neck. Dash yelped, pulling hard out of the dive but Spitfire refused to be dislodged. Her grip was like a vice, and it was only getting tighter. Spitfire jostled around to get Dash’s neck into the crook of her elbow, her other hoof wrapped around the back of the blue mare’s head, and she threw all of her strength into the choke.
Dash couldn’t breathe. The Wonderbolt was crushing her neck and she couldn’t breathe. Flailing in panic, gurgling noises coming from her mouth, it was more by luck than anything else that Dash threw her head back at just the right moment, smashing squarely into Spitfire’s muzzle. Rainbow felt a sudden rush of wet on the back of her head, heard her enemy cry out—none of that mattered, because suddenly she could breathe again. Pulling in a few huge lung-fulls of air, Dash spun around to face a stunned but quickly recovering Spitfire. For a lingering moment, the pair just stared rage at each other, vibrant manes streaming in the stiff breeze. Every muscle in their bodies was poised on a hair trigger as they waited, each daring the other to make the first move. There was a twitch in Spitfire’s eye, and that was enough.
Colliding in mid-air, the two mares tore into each other with a snarling, savage abandon.
Dash was consumed with an incandescent rage. Applejack needed her now, and this bitch was keeping her from her friend as she was being beaten bloody.
Spitfire got the first strike in, loosing a lightning-fast punch and striking the cyan Pegasus solidly across the jaw. Dash spun with the blow, returning with an armored elbow into Spitfire’s face. At that moment, any pretense of martial decorum was abandoned. As they closed again, Spitfire feinted and her knee lashed up, sinking into the blue Pegasus’ gut.
As she doubled over in pain, Dash latched her teeth onto Spitfire’s thigh, biting down hard. Warm blood filled her mouth as an agonized scream tore from the other mare. Dash pulled back, barely avoiding the hoof that lashed out at her face. This was it, Dash felt the moment arrive in that perfect clarity of predator and prey—Spitfire was overbalanced, panicked and in pain. It was a little known fact among the Unicorn and Earth ponies, but a Pegasus’ wings were not merely their defining attribute, allowing them the gift of flight and the magical manipulation of the weather. They were weapons—the matrix density of the bones making them harder even than a Unicorn’s horn. Tilting on her axis, one wing behind her, the other held low; Dash threw all of her weight at a downward angle, her back wing coming up and over in a blue blur, connecting with Spitfire’s outstretched leg. The crack of bone rang out like a shot.
Dash watched as though through slow motion; Spitfire’s eyes were wide in shock, her muzzle open, the burning agony not yet fully reaching her. Nevertheless, she fell backward, her limbs and wings seized up in shock. By Pegasus standards, the fall was not a great one—still, the Wonderbolt hit the ground with a sickening crunch, bounced once, then twice, coming to rest on her back, fully stretched out with her head lolled to the side against the grass. As Dash descended, she saw the thin line of blood leaking from Sptifire’s mouth, her foreleg bent at an angle it had no natural right to. She was breathing, but it was a jagged, gurgling sound.
Only as Dash landed in a stagger, the sustaining adrenaline burned off, did she come to terms with her own condition. Blood dripped from her muzzle, and its coppery taste was mostly her own. She gasped in pain as she took a deep breath—at least one of her ribs was surely broken, and her shoulder at the base of her left wing was on fire.
Her attention was torn from her own pain as familiar screams filled the air. Looking over, Dash saw both Rarity and Twilight screeching their heads off at the guards—two of whom wore brown cloaks and were restraining the struggling, furious Unicorn mares. The three massive Earth ponies in the rugged armor threw a bound and unconscious Applejack into the already moving carriage. The armored Pegasi threw themselves against the weight, powerful beats of their wings lifting them off the ground. In moments, the carriage was aloft.
Dash tried to take to the air in pursuit, a strangled shout of denial ripping from her throat as a muscle tore, deep in her shoulder. Her entire left side felt like it had been lit on fire and she dropped to the hard ground in a heap of feathers. Refusing to give up, tears streaming from her eyes, Dash rose and galloped for all she was worth after the quickly receding transport, her left wing hanging uselessly at her side. Pathetically, all she was worth was little more than a lurching hobble and she soon collapsed into the dirt with an exhausted finality. Clenching her eyes shut, each breath an inhalation of agony, Dash stretched out her neck and screamed.
From the obscuring edge of the forest, a pair of teal-green ears perked attentively. The mare sighed and ‘tsked’ in exasperation. “Really now,” she muttered to herself. “I’ve had quite about enough of this.”
Chapter 7- “Ambiguity”
Chapter 9 - “Inquisition”
Special thanks go out to the amazingly talented:
Things began to clear for the sky-blue Pegasus, darkness pulling back as blinding light filled her vision. The expanse seemed without limit as she stared upwards, uncomprehending. She slowly blinked once, twice, feeling entirely removed from thought or body. Inhale, exhale. Wisps of cloud drifted aimlessly, high above. A soft grunt left her as sensation began to return. Her brow furrowed as the first lances of pain began to stitch through her side. What… what happened? Dash raised her foreleg up to where she could see it; superimposed on the backdrop of the summer sky, the black armor encasing her leg was scuffed, jagged tears here and there. She no longer wanted it on her. She didn't want it anywhere near her.
A sudden move, an effort to roll over and sit up, had her hissing in agony. "Oh goddess!" Dash gasped, curling in on her side and clenching her eyes shut. Shoulder, ribs, hind leg, wings. Was any part of her body not in pain? What the hell is going—her eyes shot open. Applejack!
With the sting of moisture in her eyes, Dash bit her lip and slowly, carefully, pushed herself into a raised position with one foreleg, the other cradled against her breast. She looked about, taking in the forest to the south, Canterlot far—though not too far—off in the distance. The sharp color of an immobile blue-clad form behind the waving green of the long grass brought the fight back in shocking clarity. Spitfire. She had taken down a Wonderbolt in aerial combat.
What the fuck? Spitfire? Working with the military? Helping them kidnap Applejack. Rarity and Twilight too, from the looks of it. Dash hung her head and closed her eyes.
I'm… this is nuts. This is all… this isn't a game. She began to shake slightly.
I'm in SO far over my mane here. What the hell was I thinking? ‘Oh sure goddess of the night, I'll be your new captain and stuff!’ Her thoughts were laced with the disdain of how casually she had jumped into a whirlpool, so very far out of her depth.
And I went and pulled everypony right down with me.
Staring at the grass, the wind gently swept the shock of multi-hued mane cascading down as her salty tears watered the earth. The sundering of her life and the connections that mattered most, the upheaval of her dreams and the foundations of her world; it hurt beyond the telling of it. Well... it wasn't as though she was entirely without options. She could, after all, just curl up right here and die. That didn't sound so awful…
With incredible reluctance and a groan that passionately summarized a complete disdain for the entire process, Rainbow Dash opened her eyes, blinking anew against the glare of late afternoon. Raising her head, she struggled to rise. Every wound, every bruise, and every broken bone was rendered into a sharp and sudden relief. The pain of it all was so intense that, though she'd have liked to have screamed, a mini-seizure and ragged gasp seemed to be the best she could produce. When the wave finally passed, she found herself curled into a fetal position as tightly as she could bear and just listened, breathing shallowly, afraid to move.
A steady wind rustled across the plains, singing lightly against the grains and grasses. Opening her eyes once more, Dash decided to take this whole thing one step at a time. First, just how badly was she hurt? Craning her head—very, very slowly—she looked herself over: Right wing matted with cloying blood, though it didn't seem to be hers, left wing visibly undamaged, a vicious bruise against her ribcage—at least one or two broken. Limbs? Careful flexing and examination didn't seem to turn up worse than painful bruises and maybe a torn ligament in her left hind leg, though that did hurt like all hell. Nothing broken, far as she could tell, though the lancing agony begged to differ. Probing her tongue around her mouth, it seemed all of her teeth seemed to be present and accounted for; vanity or no, she felt a wash of relief over that. She stretched her neck and spat out a mouthful of coppery-tasting blood. Whatever, she had plenty of that. So far, her ribs were the worst of the lot.
Easing her hooves beneath her, she gingerly stood and braced herself. Unfurling first her left wing, then her right, she began to cautiously extend them, working the sockets through their full range of motion. By the time she was done, her jaw was clenched and fresh tears were streaming down her face, and not just from the searing pain. Her right wing—it wasn't broken, but the muscle at her shoulder was torn so badly there was no way she was going to be able to fly. And if I can't fly… AJ, Rarity, Twilight… I lost them.
Dash hung her head, glaring at the blurred images of the grass and her hooves as tears of rage and impotence tracked her cheeks. With a huff, her hoof dragged along the ground as she limped over to the crumpled heap of the blue-and-gold-suited Pegasus that lay motionless in the grasses. She had rolled and bounced several times, it appeared, and her uniform was more stained with crimson than the brilliant blue of the tight-fitting uniform. Dash cycled through a gamut of emotion looking down at her fallen enemy, her fallen idol. Rage, loss, sorrow, fear, confusion, and back to rage. For the briefest moment, she entertained the image of crushing Spitfire beneath her hooves, again and again, until she was totally unrecognizable. The shock, the betrayal of what this mare was… what the idols of so many ponies, so many fillies and colts, really were. What they really did…
That lasted about half a second, as the terror and revulsion of just what she was picturing washed over her; a flashing image of her hooves covered in the blood of the helpless Wonderbolt, smashing down again and again. Dash staggered back in disgust, and was confronted by another crippling thought—I don't even know if she's alive!
Spitfire lay on her side, head lolled back and mouth open, her eyes closed behind cracked goggles. Dash watched, but couldn't see if her chest was rising and falling. Moving closer, she crouched down and pressed an ear to her breast, trying to ignore the front leg and wings that were bent at unnatural angles. She was breathing. Barely. Her heart was beating. Barely.
Dash rose and looked down at Spitfire, the pony she had once idolized above all others, the pony she had wanted to fly with and be recognized by, more than any other. Now here she was, dying on the ground, and not only was there nothing Dash could do to save her once-hero, but her blood was on her hooves. She wanted to scream, and so she did. She settled to the ground, resting her forehead against her crossed forelegs.
After a time, she opened her eyes, and screamed again at an entirely different octave. Enormous blue eyes were staring into hers, less than an inch away. "P-Pinkie?!" Dash stuttered. "Wha—How? What?" More movement drew her attention. "Fluttershy! You're okay! Oh, thank Cel—" She was abruptly cut off as her friends enveloped her. The embrace was searingly painful, but she didn't mind. The soft murmurs of "Oh Dashie" and "There there, hush now" felt so good to the broken-hearted Pegasus. Dash opened her mouth to express her overwhelming relief that her friend was okay, but Fluttershy pulled back, looking over to the inert Pegasus sprawled out behind Rainbow.
"Oh my goodness, Rainbow Dash... is she…" Fluttershy asked, shying away from finishing the question.
It wasn't difficult to figure out what she meant, but Dash could only shake her head in despair. "I don't know, Shy; I mean, not yet, but she's bad. Real bad."
Rainbow knew that Fluttershy was a fairly competent medical pony—she had, after all, played vet to so many creatures for so many years that, even without much formal training, she was the one ponies sought out if their pets were in trouble—and pony anatomy probably wasn't all that different from many animals that lived in the wild. True to form, a thoughtful and concerned frown crossed Fluttershy's face, and she made her way toward the gravely injured Wonderbolt. Pinkie and Dash watched fixedly as the demure Pegasus carefully examined her, making small noises now and again, none of which sounded promising. After just a few moments, she stood up and looked over, wings trembling against her sides. Her emerald eyes were huge and full of tears. "I'm... I’m so, so sorry. I can't help her. She's… too far gone."
By the time she said the last word, her voice was a mere whisper. Pinkie was already by her side, nuzzling her. "Don't worry Fluttershy, even if you can't help, I'm pretty sure she can. There's some weird stuff about her."
No. Fluttershy can't help her? Spitfire can't die… not like this, not because of… Wait, who the what now?
Dash blinked. Was Pinkie talking about her? What could she… no. Pinkie wasn't looking at her. She was looking behind her. Turning around to look, she felt her wings reflexively—and painfully—try to flair out to the sides.
"You! What are you doing here?!" Glancing left and right, just to be sure, she added suspiciously, "And where's that Wolf? He get off his leash again?"
Lyra raised an eyebrow as she neared. "You should be glad he isn't here. A comment like that could see you sans a head before any of us could do anything about it. His kind take words rather seriously, you know… that’s something you should probably try and remember."
Ruby eyes narrowed. "Hmph, whatever."
A small shake of the head, and the verdant Unicorn dismissed the matter, turning her attention to a more pressing concern— the downed Wonderbolt. She nosed Spitfire lightly, her eyes critical and searching. Fluttershy looked on sadly, her head bowed.
"Hmm. She may not be beyond saving."
Fluttershy openly balked, knowing she had made no mistakes in her examination. She wanted to spare her friends the details, but Spitfire was bleeding internally, and several ribs had pierced her left lung, collapsing it. Fluttershy knew it was only a matter of time and a lot of pain, and as much as it disturbed her, the thought of this pony giving Rainbow Dash false hope bothered her even more.
"Um… I'm sorry, but I've seen… things... this bad before. It's, um… she's… terminal."
Lyra looked over, and flicked an ear at the yellow Pegasus. "No, actually, that may not be the case. The question is... are you certain you actually want to save her?"
A stunned silence permeated the glen.
Dash recovered first. "Of course we are!" she yelled, limping right up to the light-green Unicorn's face. "Why the hell wouldn't we want to?! If you can save her, then fucking do it!" she demanded, well and truly angry.
Lyra stared back, unmoved. "Why, indeed. But, do you know what she is? What she really is, I mean. Celebrity, yes, famous stunt-pony, yes. What about everything else? The celebrity facade against the elite squadron they actually are. Some have gone so far as to call them assassins, and it's not terribly removed from the truth. There are corners of the world where the name Wonderbolt is accompanied by creatures hiding their offspring." Lyra paused, weighing the effects of her words on the trio. The annoyingly loud, multi-hued one looked completely sideswiped, Fluttershy wore an expression split between disbelief and horror, and the unpredictable pink one looked… thoughtful. For some reason, that concerned Lyra more than she could produce reason for. Nevertheless, she held her silence, and awaited the decision to come—though she could act any way she wished, she felt the final decision wasn't hers to make. These others, the blue one especially, had so much more riding on this moment. So she waited, and watched...
…And kept waiting. With a slight frown, she was about to prompt the shell-shocked Rainbow Dash, but as she sucked in the breath to speak, the pink one surprised her yet again.
"What? Are you waiting for us? Do it. Save her. If you can, you should. You have to, right? It’s the right thing to do! Fluttershy, you can help Rainbow's wounds right? They're not that bad, we've all seen her with worse."
Lyra wasn't sure what bothered her more, the unpredictable pink pony rapping out orders so matter-of-factly, or that they were the perfectly correct decisions. With a sideways glance at the unsettling Earth pony—and she wasn’t a pony easily unsettled—Lyra moved past the two Pegasi to the insensate Wonderbolt, her horn already glowing as she cycled through a complex skein of spells, constructing piecemeal the various magics the broken Pegasus would require. Fluttershy had already moved up to Dash, coaxing her to lay down for a moment while she dug through her saddlebags for the bandaging and potent medicinal salves she would need. Pinkie turned away, walking off a few yards to face the north, just standing with her back to the group, as though she'd momentarily forgotten them.
Dash was staring vacantly at her fallen hero while the creepy teal Unicorn worked to save her life. Her eyes burned as the despair crushed down on her, but they were dry as the desert—she simply had no more tears. What… what have I… done? Become? What am I even doing? Nothing makes any sense anymore. We're not soldiers. My friends aren't warriors. She winced at the lance of pain as Fluttershy began wrapping a bandage up the base of her wing.
A sudden gust of wind rolled in across the plains, Dash's ears perking in interest at the heavy scent it carried. Raising her head up, she squinted to the north, towards Canterlot. In the far distance, a bank of storm clouds was rolling over the mountains, stretching across the horizon. Frowning, Dash wondered if this was a coordinated effort. A storm that size, with clouds that dark, would take the combined efforts of not only Canterlot's Pegasi, but at least three other prefectures. Weird, she thought. Something this size should have been planned out months in advance, but I don't remember hearing a word about it.
The former weather pony was so wrapped in her thoughts she failed to take notice of the near-suspicious glances Fluttershy was casting to the green Unicorn standing above her friend's fallen idol. Lyra's horn was aglow, head bent and eyes closed, her expression stretched with concentration. She had been like that for several minutes now, and Fluttershy couldn't help wondering what in the hay she thought she was doing. Nibbling on her lower lip, she split her attentions between rubbing a healing salve into the articulation of Dash's wing and shoulder, and surreptitiously observing the mysterious mare's efforts. Frankly, Fluttershy was surprised that— Spitfire, right?—hadn't bled out by the time they'd arrived. Her breathing had been terribly shallow and erratic, her heart-rate a quickly fading staccato. The internal injuries were severe, and at least one rib had snapped, piercing and deflating her left lung. Despite her practiced efforts to distance herself, Fluttershy felt empathetic tears beginning to well up, despite what this Pegasus had been involved in, or how badly she had hurt Rainbow. Still... she’d be watching very closely to see what Lyra thought she could do to save the Wonderbolt.
Fluttershy didn’t have to wait long. With a huff, Lyra’s horn extinguished and she shook herself from horn to hoof, brushing beads of sweat from her forehead with a foreleg. “Well, that’s done. She’ll survive at least.”
Fluttershy frowned, phrasing her words cautiously. “Um... What exactly... did you do? What kind of medical training do you have?”
Lyra blinked at her, an amused grin forming on her lips. “Training? Do I strike you as a medical pony?”
That did it. Fluttershy rose, eliciting a pained squawk from Dash as she pulled on the bandaging still in her mouth. With an apologetic glance downward, she quickly spat it out, then looked back to Lyra, her eyes narrowed. “No. No you do not. I... I don’t know what you strike me as. You’ve only been in Ponyville a little while, but nopony seems to know much about you: what you do, where you come from, or... or anything!” Fluttershy exclaimed, her voice actually rising as she extended a hoof. “Who are you?”
Lyra stood facing Fluttershy squarely, an eyebrow raised high, her golden eyes half-lidded. “What does it matter to you who I am? This game has players like any other. It’s mere circumstance that our paths have crossed, that our moves have overlapped up to this point, is it not?
“I have no stake in you,” she said coolly, pausing to sweep a hoof, “in any of you, nor do you in me beyond this moment. The extent of my involvement so far has been at the request of someone I have... a considerable debt to.”
She slowly cocked her head and a wry smile crept onto the sylvan pony’s muzzle. “Not to mention it’s all so fascinating, isn’t it? Reclusive races stepping from the shadowed boughs for the first time in living memory, Dragons, levels of intrigue and... well, chaos, that haven’t been seen in this land for literally ages. For all that it is now, you know what it isn’t? Stagnant. This is a time of convergence, of transition. Granted, we may not all actually survive it, but y’know what? Existence tends to be a tad more expansive than us and our petty squabbles. Maybe we’d have more to say about the greater movements of things if we didn’t take ourselves so damned seriously, but who knows?”
Regarding the mares before her, it became quickly apparent to Lyra that her explanations weren’t doing a great deal to set them at ease; the three were practically prancing in confusion. Her expression crinkled in a mild consternation.
“Look...” she said, trying again. “You’re asking me to render terms of association that we just aren’t going to bridge.... On the other hoof, I... suppose I could be trying harder. Your town, for instance... I like it. I can see staying for a while.” Lyra scuffed at the ground, looking suddenly awkward, she said, “But right now, you need to be concerned for you and yours. Your friends, your families, the ponies you want to protect. You care for Ponyville, don’t you?” The verdant Unicorn turned her head to look away for a moment, “I’ve grown rather fond of it... it’s a nice place. Not the forest, but nice...” Lyra’s eyes seemed to flash as she took a step forward. “I’d like it to still be there when this is all over... and you’re going to have to keep your heads if that’s to be the case. You only get one shot at this after all. Don’t blow it.”
Fluttershy stared, muzzle moving silently at the rejoinder which she had no measure for.
The three mares looked over to where Pinkie stood, still facing away from them, her ears canted back and head raised as she mock-howled, one foreleg raised high.
The silence stretched between them, Dash’s ruby gaze steady on the verdant Unicorn, who had visibly stiffened. Fluttershy looked on in confusion at the turn of conversation.
“Yeah,” Dash said quietly. “Care to explain that?”
The fairly open atmosphere that had previously emanated from the Unicorn just moments ago seemed to simply vanish, as though a switch had been flipped. “...No,” she said with finality. “That’s nopony’s business, and frankly, it’d be best if you just forgot about it.” Lyra cast a frustrated glance at the pink pony. “And how did you... Y’know what, never mind,” she said, thinking better of going down that road.
Looking back to Dash and meeting her gaze levelly, she said, “Equestria is a big place. There’s a lot that happens in the world that isn’t made of sunshine and rainbows. There are dark places in the world, but darkness doesn’t automatically mean bad, as most ponies are so keen to jump to. It means silence, and mysteries. Every single night, that side of the world takes over, and what was clear and boring in the daylight becomes unfathomable and endless. Ponies seem to have either forgotten that, or prefer to hide from it. I haven’t, and I don’t.”
Dash made a ‘hmm’ sound, before saying, “Well, that kinda works around your... um, connection with what’s been going on... sort of... but we’re gonna have to sit down and have a long talk sometime soon. I’m sick to death of secrets.”
“Rainbow Dash, you know nothing of bearing the weight of secrets. Not yet.” Lyra said in a low, barely audible tone, then shook her head. “In any case, sure, stop by sometime. We’ll go for a walk. But now’s really not the time to get into everything.” Looking back to Fluttershy, she said, “As for your real question, you’re right, I’m no medical pony. I was able to slow her heart rate and breathing down. She’s in complete stasis.” At Fluttershy’s blank look, she amended, “A... kind of hibernation. It’ll be enough to preserve her for a while. I’m going to take her back to Ponyville, get her the emergency care she needs. In the meantime, you girls had better get going, don’t you think?”
Dash grimaced. “Yeah, we probably should.” Gingerly, she rose and stretched her wings experimentally, wincing. “Well, no strong flying for a while. Guess I’ll be hoofing it.”
The parting goodbyes were less awkward than anypony expected, a rather pleasant surprise for Lyra. The three friends moved off, trotting closely together. The green Unicorn stood for a moment with the insensate Wonderbolt floating carefully beside her, encased in a verdant glow. Watching them go, she sighed and cast a look back toward Ponyville.
After a short distance, a strong gust of wind prompted Fluttershy to look back, and she gasped. There was no sign of Lyra, her magical glow, or the broken Pegasus to be seen across the wide plains. She turned to her friends, confusion etched across her face, wings half-raised in alarm. “Um... what was... I mean... How did... ” She trailed off, uncertain how to finish the question, or which concern was the more pertinent.
Pinkie looked back and smiled as she bounced along. “Oh, she runs with Wolves.”
Twilight was shouting obscenities at the top of her lungs, utterly enraged. Her violet eyes were wild, muzzle drawn back to bare teeth, her horn sparking erratically. Behind her stood Rarity, in a protective half-crouch, the look on her face one of painfully split intentions. On the one hoof, it was clear she wished to join the purple mare in expressing her fury, while on the other, she was thoroughly unprepared to move away from the prostrate body of her other friend—the orange mare who was currently bound, beaten, and drifting in and out of consciousness. The acceptable compromise was to glare silent death upon the brutes in golden armor and stand protectively over Applejack. All else aside - Rarity considered - in the arena of creative venting, Twilight seemed to be doing just fine on her own.
While by rights her ire should be most directed toward the Earth pony soldiers who had beaten Applejack into unconsciousness, Twilight found herself screaming into the face of their commanding officer. Throughout the entire deluge of her abuse, his stone cold passivity never cracked a hair, which only infuriated her all the more. She hated being out of control, and at this culmination of events, she had not only utterly lost any semblance of normality or control on external events, now she had lost any grip she had been maintaining on herself. With a nicker, the little pony in her head commented on what a nice change it was, to finally just let go. Maybe she could blow something up.
Behind the officer, the other mage was staring at her wide-eyed. Despite his sigil of rank and flowing robe, he looked nearly as young as the mares. Behind him, near the end of the chariot, lolled the earth pony Heavies, armor scuffed and dirty, several still bearing bloody wounds from the rout in Ponyville. They paid the irate Unicorn not the slightest attention, muttering amongst themselves and throwing bored looks down on the scenery far below.
Twilight's thoughts were muddled, furious beyond reason. If she weren't on a narrow platform streaking through the air, she very likely would have charged already. "Celestia damn you all! You're scum! You're not worth the armor you're gilded in! How dare you! Is this what soldiers of Equestria are for?! Kidnapping and beating mares?" She paused, taking in a breath and giving the commander an opportunity to respond.
He said nothing, merely lowering his brow slightly as he regarded her. The blatant ‘not-impressed’ look, atop a lack of any gratifying response, irked Twilight all the more, the caliber of her anger pushing over the edge from ‘furious’ to ‘murderous,’ and for a moment, she had the wild urge to rush him, to bury her horn in his throat. It was only as her hooves left the ground she realized she had actually tried. Twilight found herself on her back, the captain's hoof pressed against her neck as he glared down at her.
"What exactly is it that you're so angry about?" he asked. "Is this country pony your friend or one of the traitors you described? If the former, then explain what she was doing with one of those black-suited Pegasi, who also fit your description of those traitors, matching our own reports." His hoof pressed down harder into her neck as he leaned in toward her, his eyes uncompromising. "In the context of the situation, my soldiers acted as they should have with the enemy engaged and distracted. We secured a potentially vital source of information who was subdued only after resisting arrest. When we return to the castle, this mare will be incarcerated and questioned. In the meantime, you may want to get your story straight, because right now, it's more full of holes than a spongecake." He removed his hoof and backed away a step.
Tears stung at her eyes as Twilight gasped for breath, rubbing her sore neck with a hoof. "That’s absurd," she coughed out. "She saw those brutes coming and did what any sensible mare would do—panic! I refuse to believe that Princess Celestia would allow this… that she would tolerate any of this!"
The captain gave her a look that was almost pitying before the impassive mask slid back across his face.
He seemed about to speak again when a sharp whinny came from the leading Pegasi. The wingless soldiers immediately slid into a wider stance. "Brace yourselves," the captain snapped.
The carriage banked hard, cutting down through the heavy clouds like a scythe and throwing the Unicorn mares onto the wooden flooring. Leveling out at the last second, wheels and hooves touched down at the same time, both locking as they slid down the narrow concourse, bringing the high speed travel to a stop in seconds. The maneuver was expert, precise, and utterly nerve-wracking. Twilight dug her hooves out of the floorboards where she had tried to dig herself in. Glancing over, she saw Rarity: her eyes huge, mane completely frazzled, and seemingly doing her best to stop hyperventilating. Twilight imagined she looked much the same.
Before the vehicle had even slid to a full stop, the Earth pony Elites had jumped out, taking positions on the small landing platform. The captain looked over at the Unicorns. "Come on then."
The mares looked over their friend, still bound and unconscious, then to one another. "What about Applejack? We're not leaving without her," Twilight asserted firmly.
Rarity opened her mouth, prepared to alternately threaten and whine them into submission.
"Enough," said the mage, waving a forestalling hoof. "It's time for a long overdue audience, Miss Sparkle. Your friend is going to be treated for her injuries and questioned about her involvement in recent events." Twilight felt a shiver slide down her spine. There was something profoundly ominous about his words, though his tone was flat and without inflection. She had little time to contemplate the source of her discomfort, as the soldiers fell into step, corralling them along with Applejack draped over the back of one of the earth pony Heavies, her head dangling limply with his steps. She felt Rarity pressing against her side as they walked, intermittent shivers of anxiety rippling through the prim alabaster mare. Her head was high.
Using the proximity as cover, such as it was, Twilight hissed out of the corner of her muzzle, “Rarity, hold on to these.” Twilight quickly levitated her saddlebags off of her and placed them onto Rarity’s back. The Unicorn now held all five of the stone orbs in two sets of saddlebags. At Rarity’s questioning glance, she explained, “I don’t know where I’ll be going, but I apparently have an ‘audience’, so they should be safer with you. Don’t let anypony take them from you.” She received a fearful though determined little nod in return.
The wide corridor branched ahead into three paths. One led a curving path up and to the left, the right disappearing at a steep downward angle. As they reached the branch, the soldiers all moved at once. Two pushed their way in between Rarity and Twilight, two more forming up on either side of the mares. The ones leading Rarity began to herd her up to the left-most passage, the one carrying Applejack heading down to the right.
Both conscious mares immediately erupted with protest.
"W-What are you doing?! Let me go at once! Twilight!"
"Rarity! Wait, where are you taking her?! Rarity!"
Rarity's shouts of outrage echoed from the corridor as she disappeared from sight.
"Relax Miss Sparkle. She is merely being shown to a room, not a cell. You have an appointment she is not invited to," the captain spoke over his shoulder.
Twilight trotted up to walk by his side. "You… you promise she won't be harmed? And that I'll see her when I'm done?"
"I'm in no position to promise you anything. I'd say that your welfare, and hers for that matter, depend entirely on you."
Twilight frowned, adjusting to this disturbing new reality. The severity of the situation was like a pail of cold water. Her turmoil was still present, but a familiar, coldly rational process clicked into place. This was something she knew. She could not only take comfort in it, she could use it.
"So, where are we going, exactly?" she asked, trying to force a semi-pleasant tone.
"I am escorting you for an audience, at the request of the Council of Mages."
Twilight bit back a gasp. "Celestia's High Court?"
She was as knowledgeable as anypony alive on the subject of the Council… as much as anypony that wasn't the Princess, or didn't actually sit on it, that was. Their workings had always fascinated her, mostly due to the fact that none of the scrolls or any of her teachers could actually tell her what the Council actually did, in any codified manner; more specifically, it was finding the limitations of the powerful and secretive group that eluded Twilight’s studies. They apparently had veto powers on any legislation but a Royal Decree, but they also acted in an executive capacity, exercising power and influence over governmental bodies across the whole of Equestria. The matter had become so frustrating to the filly that she had once approached the Princess about it. That was one of the only times Twilight could remember that the Princess had been sharp with her—not overtly, but the cues had been there, that this was not a subject Princess Celestia was open to discussing, not even with her. Ever eager to please her mentor, she had dropped the matter entirely. Now, all her concerns came rushing back.
"But… what could they possibly want with…" She stopped. Not just in her thoughts, but dead in her tracks. What was it the captain had said before? Something about orders. Orders that were both disturbingly exact as to the descriptions of the five ponies she had connected with, and incredibly vague as to the reason that they should be considered significant.
A wing from one of her escorts slapped her flank, and she skittered to get a move on. "Captain, you mentioned your orders several times," she said, her tone leading. "Did they come directly from the Council?" She caught a slight grimace from the captain.
"Yes." The hard white marble of the corridor clacked against his hooves, as sharp as his answer.
"Then… why were they so vague? How is it that you knew what to look for, but not who, aside from me? And why didn't you know where we all were? If the Council was scrying us to get your information, they'd have seen at least some of the things I told you… at the very least you'd think they'd have warned you about the damn dragons, they're kind of hard to miss! But… they weren't watching, were they? Where are your orders coming from?"
The captain stopped walking, and stood scowling down at her. For a long moment, it seemed he wouldn't say anything at all. Then—"I told you, they came from the Council of Mages."
"Then what aren't you telling me?" she near-yelled, staring up at him, eyes angry and desperate.
He scowled over at one of his soldiers that had been gawking at the two of them. The pony blanched and swiftly looked away. Turning, the somber stallion addressed his squad, "Get cleaned up and prepare for a debrief. Scroll… begin composing condolence letters. Dismissed."
A chorus of "aye sir”’s rang out, and the remaining members of the Elite contingent turned and marched off.
Waiting a few moments for the crack of the hoof-falls to fade down the corridor, the Unicorn mage looked back to gaze levelly at Twilight. After a moment, he heaved a sigh. "I'm only telling you this because nopony knows what the hell is going on, and you were possibly the closest pony the Princess had to a confidant… So, apparently, from what I'm told, the descriptions of you and your five… acquaintances, as well as the urgent need to sequester all six of you in the castle, came directly from the Princess herself." He held up a forestalling hoof as Twilight's mouth opened, her eyes wide and looking like she was about to jump at him.
Before she could get a word out, he continued, "Now I don't know how this worked out, but from what I understand, a letter was found on the Throne in the Great Hall. It bore the Royal seal, and detailed some very specific instructions." A scowl stole across his features. "I highly doubt what I was told constitutes the entirety of the Princess' decree."
He caught Twilight’s bewildered expression. "I'm a commander of an Elite division, not a grunt in the barracks. I've been working with the High Council for decades, and often enough have reported directly to the Princess. When I'm told her last orders before she completely disappears are 'not for my eyes', then I develop a serious problem. I've seen you many times throughout the years Miss Sparkle—always at the Princess' side or mane-deep in your studies, and while I may have thought you were just a sheltered and overly privileged little filly, she trusted you. I don't know why, but she did, and... it was plain she cared about you as well." Twilight flinched slightly, biting the inside of her lip as he continued, "It's painfully obvious that things aren't adding up… Hell, nothing is adding up right now. I don't even know what this damned puzzle is supposed to look like!"
Twilight was bursting with a million questions, but she was somewhat side-swept by the unexpected admonition of her mentor’s feelings for her, and for a moment, the black hole of that loss almost swallowed her. The captain busied himself frowning at an unremarkable, though clearly offensive section of the wall, giving her time to mentally back away from that particular abyss.
"And now, you have an audience that isn’t going to like being kept waiting."
Twilight’s ears were plastered back against her mane, and she looked up at him with her heart bleeding in her eyes. “Captain... please... do you know anything about the Princess? Anything at all?”
His scowl evaporated as he stared down at her, a look of genuine empathy softening his features. He shook his head sadly.
Outside, the thunder rolled as the storm fell over Canterlot.
The journey had taken much longer than the trio expected, and the arguing certainly hadn’t helped. Far from the beaten paths and packed roads, the three mares picked their way carefully, sticking to the lower valleys and the dales of the hills. Only occasionally would a bright head, sometimes multi-hued, sometimes pink, pop up at the top of a hill to orient their direction, before quickly disappearing again. After a great deal of heated discussion, it had been agreed upon to circle around the great city’s borders, approaching from the western fields, where no roads came in.
Dash had wanted to simply head in through the main gates; she had, after all, discarded the torn and battered Shadowbolt barding. Having dropped the dead giveaway, she’d argued, they were just three fine mares for a visit to the city; hell, they could probably flirt some information out of an oblivious guard! Fluttershy had shot that down in a surprising display of assertiveness, literally putting her hoof down as she told a surprised Rainbow Dash to, in no uncertain terms, stop whining about being careful, reminding Dash that they’d taken Applejack, and it was unlikely they did so solely because she’d been with Dash. Fluttershy had argued that they had to try to sneak in, pointing to the approaching storm as a source of cover.
Looking at the huge wall of nearly black clouds rolling in, Dash had to admit if anything would cover them, it’d be that. She didn’t know how right she was. Pinkie had cheerily suggested that they should be able to sneak in by hiding in the back a pastry wagon on its way into the city. For a moment, Fluttershy and Dash had shared an incredulous look, but after a moments thought, it actually turned out to be among their more positive options, aside from the fact that there were no confectionery wagons of any kind on the road. So it was that they broke off to the west and skirted into the rolling hills of the countryside.
The walls of Canterlot castle loomed above them. The sun was going down in the distance, but its brilliant warmth was less than an afterthought for the three ponies, considering that by the time they had crept out of the tall grasses and slid into the city proper, the storm had broken with an almost unnatural ferocity. Even Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy, Pegasi whose feathers and coats were magically repellent to rain, were completely soaked through. Vehement protests hissed from an increasingly put-out Rainbow Dash about swimming on dry land, and spontaneous conversion to seapony form. Lightning lanced the sky in ear-splitting cracks of thunder, drowning out Pinkie’s laughter.
The advantages, as far as Dash could see, were that the deluge was so heavy, visibility was down to “is that a pony or a lamppost,” and for the most part, most sane ponies had sought shelter. So there were a lot of lampposts. On the downside, that also meant they would be distinct should they be spotted, being the only ones out of doors that didn’t absolutely have to be. Nevertheless, between the onset of the storm, the encroaching twilight, and the judicious use of alleyways, Dash was fairly certain that nopony had spotted them.
The three pulled into a dripping huddle for a hissed brainstorm for ways of getting over the walls; even in this storm, it was certain that there would be eyes watching. Pinkie volunteered to go and scout for a opening, worker’s door, or culvert while the Pegasi opted to fly up to peek over. She was gone before either of the Pegasi could stop her. Dash dropped back down in a splash of mud, her ears laid back. “No go, Shy,” she whispered, hiding a wince at how much the quick flight up and down had cost her. “The grounds are lousy with guards. We should have just gone after Pinkie, I don’t wanna just stand around here in this.”
Casting yet another disgusted look up to the sky, Dash glanced over to take in the shivering Fluttershy, her contemptuous expression melting on the spot—a more miserable and pathetically adorable pony she’d never seen. How does she do that?
The butter-yellow Pegasus was hunched over, hanging her head low, water pouring from her thick mane in a constant waterfall as she shivered violently. Standing up straighter, a stoic scowl painting her features, Dash extended a wing over her friend, shielding as much of her as she could from the onslaught. A startled ‘meep’ came from below Dash’s blue wing, and wide aquamarine eyes peeked out from pink bangs. Looking straight ahead, Dash felt the blood begin to rush to her face. I am not blushing, she adamantly told herself. Fluttershy opened her mouth to say something undoubtedly heartwarming, when a vague sound quirked Dash’s ear.
One moment Fluttershy was huddled beneath the strong wing of the bravest pony she knew, and the next her friend was gone. Surprised and confused, she looked over, and saw two brown Pegasi rolling over one another and cursing... oh, no, one of them was Rainbow, just covered in mud. The other, much larger, was a stallion, his frame bedecked in gold... armor. Oh no. Fluttershy had just enough time to look over as another guard rushed out at her from the curtain of rain. With a strangled scream of alarm, she lifted off the ground and barely out of the way as his charge carried him past her. He spun and charged again as her water-logged wings forced her back to the ground. Desperately, she shimmied aside, her small steps aiding her as he slid past, scrambling in the thick mud. With a shout of frustration, the guard turned once more, this time advancing on her in steady, measured steps. Eyes wide and terrified, Fluttershy couldn’t speak as she backed as far and quickly as she could, before feeling the cold stone of the castle wall against her rump, halting her retreat.
The Pegasus mare cowered before the guard as he approached her, a sour grin sliding like hard steel across his muzzle.
“No!” came a raw, primal scream from his left, startling him to a halt, a moment away from bringing his raised hoof down upon the trembling little Pegasus. Reflexively, he looked over just in time to catch a ball of mud to his face, the wet earth squelching into his nostrils and mouth. Hacking, he doubled over, trying to clear his airway.
He never saw the attack coming, though Fluttershy certainly registered the blue blur as it slammed into him, mud exploding in every direction at the impact. Curled up into a fetal position and whimpering incoherently was the other guard, his hooves crossed over his groin. A familiar, scratchy cry ripped her attention back to the active brawl; the Earth pony guard had gotten a hold of Dash’s ear, biting down hard and wrenching her off balance. She tumbled off of him, and they both rose to their hooves, the guard glaring murder at the muddy Pegasus mare as she shook her mane out of her eyes.
Fluttershy was trembling so hard she thought she might simply keel over. Rendered nearly helpless merely by undue attention in the best of circumstances, she was wholly inadequate to dealing with violent confrontation, and she knew it. She couldn’t understand, why were these ponies attacking them like this? They were supposed to protect other ponies! That was their job! If she could just distract the guard for a moment before the other one got back up, maybe she and Dash could get away, find Pinkie somehow, and—
Out of the downpour, on either side of them, strode four more golden-armored stallions. Two Pegasi and two Unicorns. Four pairs of hard eyes, four wings outstretched for battle, two horns already sparking alight with arcane energy. One of the Unicorns jerked his head in Fluttershy’s direction, eliciting a snort of disdain from the other. Nevertheless, the buck obediently began to bear down on her. The other three joined their embattled comrade, tightening the circle around Dash.
The Earth pony guard clearly felt he had a score to settle. Heedless of the new arrivals, he lunged forward, every line of him intent on crushing the mare before him. His full weight went into the blow as he rose up and swept a forehoof at her head. Gracefully, the blue Pegasus dipped her weight, slipping low as the attack swept over her, then short-stepping back. Clearly an experienced fighter, the guard went with his momentum, pivoting and turning sideways, trying to body-slam her with his armored side. Incredulously, he registered his attack barely brushing her shoulder as she rolled right over him, coming down on his other side and lashing out with one rear hoof after another—one into his unprotected kidney, the other sinking into his neck. He went down hard in a splash of muddy water.
Dash spun at the sounds of a sudden rush, having just enough time to raise her hooves above her head in a cross to stop the heavy wing slamming down at her head, the force of the blow pushing her rump down to splash into the ground. The second Pegasus had rushed forward a step behind his fellow, and lashed out, his hoof spearing toward her to sink into her chest. Rainbow tumbled back, head over hooves as the breath was knocked out of her. Shaking water from her matted mane, Dash rose to see one Pegasus rushing to her left, the other had managed, despite the deluge, to gain enough lift to launch himself up and over her. As she tracked him, a fractured segment of her focus registered Fluttershy rolling through the mud limply, a charge from the Unicorn having thrown her back.
The split in attention nearly cost her the fight, as she was nearly too late in spinning to meet her attacker, his wing snaking out in an arch that would have snapped her neck like a twig. Dropping low and balancing on two hooves, she swung her weight in a spin, her own wing lashing out at the guard’s legs. She heard a snap at the contact, one of his knees shattering. Screaming, he went down. Now she could help Fluttershy! She had just begun to turn towards her when the other Pegasus leaped over his downed comrade, his body already twisting lithely before his front hooves had even touched the wet earth. As though in stop motion, Dash watched—frame by frame—as his rear hooves became larger and larger. She felt her muzzle compress, and blood exploded in her mouth. Then she was weightless, stretched out upside down in the air as she flew. Darkness warred with motes of light as she floated through limbo.
Fluttershy watched in horror as Rainbow flew toward her, landing with a sickening thud and rolling to a muddy rest at her hooves. Her own wounds and terror forgotten, she rose. “No!” she screamed at the advancing Unicorn, intent on pummelling her again.
“You do not hurt my friends anymore!” Fluttershy yelled, consumed with an incandescent rage. Glaring at the sheer injustice of the world with all of the outrage that only a truly innocent soul can possess, her stare locked with that of the advancing soldier. The properties of her unique ability were never something she had ever actually analyzed. She preferred to set her mind to the beautiful, the softer and gentler shade of things. How a pony such as Fluttershy came to possess such a potent attribute was a matter of consideration utterly lost on the royal guard as it was turned upon him with full force. Muscles locking, mind reeling back into a near catatonic state, he found himself bound wholly within that baleful aquamarine gaze, before losing consciousness altogether and collapsing in a heap.
“What the fuck!” came the furious shout from the remaining Unicorn. “The hell kind of Pegasus magic is that?!”
“I have no idea...” stammered the other Pegasus guard, looking stunned and not a little fearful.
Seeing the furious mare turning those huge eyes toward him, the Unicorn lashed out instinctively; summoning a burst of energy, he hurled a bolt of lightning at the yellow-coated mare. Even as it streaked toward her, he realized the attack was incredibly overpowered, born of fear, and that he’d likely just killed the mare he was under absolute orders to bring in alive.
It was with a mixture of incredulity and disbelief that he saw the rainbow-maned pony rise up, her wings spread wide at their base and curving forward to arch her primary feathers before her. The hoof-thick bolt of lightning slammed into her and... coalesced. Electrical energy crackling, Dash held the furious currents, refusing to allow them to disperse as they shot back and forth with a chaotic brilliance between her wings, casting sharp and rapidly shifting shadows across her face. She pulled up, standing tall. Her large, blood red eyes seemed to glow in the flickering light as she slowly drew her wings apart, gilded with lightning. With an audible snap, Rainbow Dash hurled the bolt of energy right back into the face of the gaping Unicorn. Convulsing, he collapsed in a heap, currents sparking from his horn and armor.
Dash’s head was held low, her breathing heavy and ragged; one hoof raised as though too painful to set weight on, lines of blood running down it. I can’t believe that worked! she thought incredulously. Lightning was commonly constructed in weather work, but only a rare few had the affinity with the element to do what she had done. Dash had never tried her hoof at it before—she had merely intended to take the hit for Fluttershy. She spoke without taking her eyes off the remaining Pegasus guard. “Shy. Run. Fly away.”
Before Fluttershy was able to articulate any of the dozen denials circulating through her head, a red light flashed from her left, and a ball of energy slammed into Rainbow Dash, sending her flying to smash against the castle wall. Dash slid down the wall, coming to rest in a crumpled heap, smoke rising from an angry burn on her side. Raising one hoof, she slurred, “Fluttershy, just... go. Run. Please!”
Too horrified to move, Fluttershy was tackled to the ground, her foreleg wrenched behind her as her head was pulled back in a painful grip.
She didn’t resist. She could only watch as a fresh guards milled about, some tending to the fallen soldiers, while three others moved up to Rainbow, staring down at her in contempt.
“Filthy traitor!” one said. “An attack on the Princess is an attack on Equestria itself! Did you think you could get away with it?”
Dash just glared up at him, not out of spite, but honestly not knowing how to even begin to explain... if she even wanted to, that was.
Another soldier’s hoof sunk into her stomach, and she gasped in surprise and pain.
“You think this is a joke? Where is she?!” Another hoof slammed across her face. She could no longer tell who it belonged to.
Coughing, she spat blood and tried to answer. “I... I don’t know,” she said weakly.
“Liar!” screamed a guard, rearing up on his hind legs. A sharp crack cut through the sound of the heavy downpour as his shod hoof came down on her hind leg. Dash screamed.
“Where is the princess?! Eh?” yelled a fresh guard.
“Give her back to us!” demanded another. Every command was punctuated with more blows as they gave vent to their communal fear and frustration.
Dash had stopped moving, stopped protesting. Fluttershy had looked on in uncomprehending horror. Finally, she found gave voice to the screams echoing in her head, “Please! Please stop! Why are you doing this? Oh Celestia, stop!”
A hoof smashed across her face. “How dare you use her name!” Fluttershy almost welcomed the darkness as it overtook her, her last impressions ones of angry murmurings, and the sensation of being pulled through thick mud...
When Fluttershy came to, she was still being dragged along, though this time across hard, dry stone. A disparate part of her mind quietly debated if the current sensation was preferable to the last. She let out a moan of utter misery, coming to the conclusion that just about anything would be better than this. Fluttershy was a consummate pacifist, and as such, had never so much as gotten into a scuffle, not even with the bullies back in flight school. She had certainly never been beaten before, and she could hardly bear how much it hurt, to get hit again and again. With a mental jolt, she recalled how much more savagely a punishment Rainbow had taken. She opened her eyes and found herself being dragged by her forehooves, her rump trailing along the ground. No sign of Rainbow behind her.
Before she could try to twist around to risk a glance—she certainly wasn’t about to ask—she felt her legs being wrenched as she was tossed into a doorway. As she landed, she caught sight of a bright, if muddy, multi-colored tail dragging across the floor before it was pulled out of sight. The door slammed shut, and darkness fell around her as her eyes tried to adjust to the low light. Fighting to rise to her hooves, biting back the whimpers of pain from her side and muzzle, she nearly had a full-on heart attack as a voice erupted from the side of the cramped cell.
“A... Applejack?! Applejack! Oh, thank goodness you’re alright!” Fluttershy had to pause a moment at that. She hadn’t actually seen Applejack yet, and considering her own treatment, she experienced a pang of fear as to whether her friend actually was alright. Her fears were set to rest as the orange pony rushed to her side, enveloping her in a crushing hug. She squeaked at the force of it, but didn’t try to pull away.
Releasing her, Applejack stepped back. “What the hay are y’all doin’ here Fluttershy?! Ah mean, Ah’m glad you’re okay, but for Celestia’s sake—”
A scream tore through the dungeons, filling their cell and drowning Applejack’s questions. The two mares stared at each other in horrified recognition, the same desperate plea of denial echoing in their eyes. They knew that voice: it was the scratchy voice of Rainbow Dash, the bravest, and yes, most loyal pony they knew. And she was in agony.
Her screams were punctuated with attempts to form comprehensible words, an occasional “PLEASE!” or “I DON’T KNOW!” cutting through the full-throated shrieks.
In the next instant, without thought, both Fluttershy and Applejack were at the door of their cell, reared back on the hind legs to peer from the square, barred opening. Even Fluttershy was shouting at the top of her lungs as she and Applejack echoed each other, demanding to be let out, to stop hurting Rainbow. Pleading turned to threats as their friend’s screams continued unabated, and Applejack dropped from the door, turning around and bucking it for all she was worth. The heavy iron door rattled, but held. Again and again she slammed at it in a blind fury, her hooves beginning to paint the rough metal with glistening spots of crimson; Fluttershy saw none of it, her eyes clenched shut and head pressed between her hooves as she lay curled on the floor, whispering “stopstopstop” in a broken staccato.
She didn’t even feel it when Applejack wrapped her in an embrace, the country pony’s own tears wetting her mane.
Taking a deep breath, Twilight stepped through the huge, wooden double doors, hearing them slide closed behind her. The voluminous chamber was oblong in shape. Four massive fireplaces were alight and roaring, set into the walls at even spaces. The cold, monochrome granite seemed to suck the warmth from the air. The long banners of the High Equestrian Noble Houses hung evenly arrayed along the rounded walls, their glaring primary colors contrasting strongly. Mirroring the shape of the room itself was a long table positioned in the center.
Ringing the table, twelve Unicorns sat against high-backed chairs, all looking over at her with varying degrees of impatience. Gulping, Twilight moved toward them. She knew that eight of the major Noble families sat on the Council by hereditary rights of mercantile arrangement, and their incredibly rich robes and rather rotund physiques testified to her memory. The other four seats were, as fit the Council generally, a bit more of a mystery. While the former seemed to be held by ponies of great wealth and the inevitable influence that came with it, the remaining four were occupied by Unicorns of a far more spartan taste in attire, their robes of less flamboyant design and coloration, and they lacked the garishly expensive-looking jewelry and trinkets that peppered the heads and hooves of the rich Houses. More disturbing—their gazes were level, reserved, and thoughtful. It was no question to Twilight which stallions could prove to be the most dangerous in this room.
Coming as close as she cared to the end of the table, Twilight stood before them; there was no cushion or chair placed for her, so she simply stood and waited, enduring their silent stares. Just as she began to wonder if she were breaching some obscure etiquette in not rendering some gesture of supplication—although under the circumstances, damned if she’d give that anyway—a pudgy stallion broke into her thoughts.
“So. Twilight Sparkle, the prodigy, finally deigns to set hoof before us,” he said, his tone scathing and indolent.
Twilight blinked, at an utter loss for how to actually respond to such an obnoxious statement. Was this a rhetorical question?
Despite the expression of bafflement painted across her face, the Council-stallion pressed on, taking her silence for an obstinate defiance.
“Well? What exactly do you have to say for yourself? Speak!”
“I... I really don’t know what to say. I don’t know what you want from me!”
Another opulent Unicorn slammed his hoof down on the table, a goblet nearly spilling over. “Stop playing games! Who the hell do you think you are?! We are the kingdom’s High Council, and now you are going to tell us everything you know about the Princess’ disappearance!”
There it was. Twilight wasn’t certain why, but hearing those words from the muzzle of a member of the highest Council in Equestria solidified everything. The Princess was truly, simply gone. Had she been abducted? Had she just left? Was she hiding? There were too many questions, and they were driving the ponies of Equestria crazy. She thought back to the actions of the guards, the panic of the ponies in Ponyville; this is what happened when the linchpin to a society was removed, and Celestia was that linchpin. She was the keystone that ponies placed their faith in, and without her, the pressure was crushing everypony. She looked back at this blustery gathering of stallions with new perspective. They were old, fearful, and had not the slightest idea what to do. Well... she could say that for most of them anyway. The silent ones were still something to wonder about.
A particularly oblong Unicorn released a long-suffering sigh. “Just recount for the Council in exacting detail your last interaction with the Princess. Leave out nothing.”
Twilight’s face scrunched up as she combed her memory for anything outstanding—had the Princess left her a hint of some kind? “Well... I sent her a letter from my study detailing the concerns my research had led me towards regarding the prophecy of Nightmare Moon’s return, and she—”
Twilight was interrupted as the Council, as one body, leaned forward. “Yes?” one asked. “And what precisely led you to that avenue of study?”
“Oh, um... well,” Twilight stammered as she shifted uncomfortably. “I was doing a comparative essay into the epistemology of ancient pony myths and legends, and their relevance to Equestrian society. You see, at some point, there is a divergence in cultural relevance versus traditionalism at a foundational level, which plays a very heavy role in—”
Once more, Twilight found herself cut off by an impatient wave of a hoof. “Do get to the point, Miss Sparkle. We don’t have all day.”
Flushing in one part embarrassment and two parts irritation, Twilight attempted to get back on track. “But that is the point. That’s the research I was engaged in when I stumbled across the legend of the Mare in the Moon. It was... intriguing. And disturbing. I got a little... sidetracked with my essay, and started looking more heavily into it. Given the cross-cultural similarities alone with comparative histories of other nations at the same time period, almost precisely one thousand years ago, it stood out from any other example I had been studying... Then... after more research... I became a little concerned. I know how it all sounds, even now, but the evidence was overwhelming. It was too real. So I wrote the Princess about it. The letter I got back... was the one sending me to Ponyville. She... she completely dismissed my concerns, and didn’t even come to see me off. I expected to see her again at the Summer Sun Celebration, but...” Twilight broke off, unable to maintain her composure but refusing to be seen as weak before this group of ponies.
The table of stallions exchanged glances for a moment, then one said, “Tell us, Miss Sparkle, what was the overall nature of your studies with the Princess? Were you ever caught out-of-line? Learning things you perhaps shouldn’t be meddling in?”
Twilight blinked, thrown for a moment. The segue of questioning, followed by those latter implications left her floundering. “I... what? What are you—”
“Dark magic, Miss Sparkle, is what we’re talking about,” one elderly noble said as he scowled and leaned toward her over the table, his jowls quivering. “Surely a filly as talented as yourself wouldn’t be content with the average curriculum. We find it likely the Princess began to teach you things that perhaps shouldn’t be taught to one so young and impulsive... who knows what mischief such a thing could bring... accidentally... or otherwise.”
Twilight’s confusion blossomed into pure outrage as she synced the connotations. Her ears laid back and eyes narrowed, she raised a hoof and jabbed it at the table’s collective occupants. “How dare you! You’re suggesting I had something to do with Princess Celestia’s disappearance?! Me?! You... I.... You have no idea what you’re talking about! You have no idea what I’ve been through trying to find out what happened to her! How broken everything is without her! Even you! All of you! What exactly have all of you done to try and find her since she vanished without a trace, aside from abducting me?”
The brown-coated noble who had initially greeted her so warmly cast a withering glance at a stallion across the table, grumbling in a surreptitious tone, “Yes, what indeed. When the supposedly most powerful Unicorns in the realm can produce not a whit of a clue...”
Half-muttered passive-aggressive comments were apparently not a well-received contribution to the proceedings, and drew a steady glare from one of the as-of-yet silent stallions. The noble blanched, turning away. The steel-gray Unicorn kept his gaze leveled on the fidgeting Council-member for a moment, before huffing in contempt. Coughing into his hoof, the brown buck turned his attention back to Twilight. “What we have been doing, young lady, is holding the entire country together! The Princess may have taken you under her wing, but you haven’t the faintest idea how much work goes into telling ponies what to do! As though they shouldn’t all know their places! By now the natural order of things and their station in them should be ingrained into them as surely as their marks! Why, if it weren’t for the aristocracy—”
“Enough of this,” cut in the mage that had glared down the noble only moments ago, his voice even and low. “This is no time for one of your ideological rants Gilded, amusing as they may be. Miss Sparkle, I believe you understand the dire circumstances facing Equestria. Perhaps more keenly even than some at this table.” If Unicorns had feathers to ruffle, the nobles at the table would have puffed up as a single, indignant turkey. The mage continued without sparing them a glance. “There are questions that none of here can answer, and threats at our stables that we have but the vaguest conception of. Though you display an admirable bravery, the fact is you are lost, and frankly, near breaking. While you have given us precious little reason to place faith in you, I must admit we haven’t given you any reason to trust us.”
He went silent, gazing at Twilight over his stapled hooves. “In any case, this matter is ultimately beyond our will.” Turning to the his fellows, he exchanged a nod before looking back to her. “The real question we have, is why the Princess, as a segment of her final command”— Twilight’s ear flicked—”would order us to bring yourself and five completely unknown mares to the castle, your collective safety being of paramount importance. There is something... between the lines. In fact, the implications are glaring: you and these others must either have knowledge from the Princess that she did not see fit to share with anypony else, or you are holding some other manner of ace in the hole.
“...Therefore, we are going to level with you, and give you the time and solace you will no doubt need to come to terms with information we’ve had days to contemplate. Frankly, we are no closer to understanding it now than we were, and so we must hope that you and your... associates, may offer some unexpected insight.”
Turning to the arrayed nobles, each one of them looking both shell-shocked and a touch pasty, he said in a tone that brooked no debate, “Give her the letter.”
At once, eight muzzles opened to protest. As one, four glares stared them down.
With a blustery, “Fine, have it your own bloody way, Stargazer,” the brown-coated stallion Twilight registered as Gilded reached into the sleeve of his robe and pulled out a scroll. Though the seal was broken, it was nevertheless instantly recognized by Twilight as the Princess’ own. He floated it over to her, even the glow of his magic seeming tepid and sullen.
Suddenly terrified by the abyss opening within her, Twilight summoned her magic, shakily grasping the scroll in her own purple glow. Unfurling it before her, the crisp rasp of the parchment and flowing script achingly familiar, Twilight began to read. Then she read it again. And again. Nopony interrupted her. Slowly, her lavender eyes rose over the lip of the paper to find the Council regarding her.
She swallowed. “I... I need to talk to my... the others.”
One of the nobles to her left waved a hoof petulantly. “I hardly think that’s—” he began, before being cut off by a tan-coated mage opposite him.
“You would attempt to deny her now? Don’t be a fool. It is within her rights.”
“Rights she shouldn’t have and wouldn’t know about if it weren’t for you! It’s madness!” grumbled another.
Ignoring the exchange, Stargazer frowned at Twilight. “You may be escorted to your ‘companions’ when you wish. They are being held in the cells below. Normally, they would be inaccessible to visitation. Although as you can see, circumstances are somewhat... extenuating.”
“Wait! You’re saying all of them are here?!” she asked, her mind racing furiously.
The Mage hesitated, then nodded.
“Now. I need to talk to them now.”
“Very well. Who do you wish to see first?”
Special thanks to-
The leather-bound tome collided with the wall, a small cloud of dust and ancient parchment loosed from the impact. Weak magical lights flickered about the room, casting shadows on the chaotic array of overturned furniture. Scrolls and scraps of parchment littered the floor as though cast about in a frenzy. Before the book had time to slide down the wall, a chair followed it, breaking apart in a burst of polished mahogany and fine upholstery.
Twilight Sparkle stood, her shoulders hunched and head hung low. She gasped sharply, catching her breath from the outburst. “Damn it all,” she hissed, her voice low and not meant to carry. A moment passed, and she raised her head. Her old chambers, those she had spent the better portion of her young life in—these same rooms filled with memories of herself and Spike living in happy, if focused, abandon—lay about her in disarray. Her gaze strayed to the shattered remnants of the huge hourglass that had once stood on a featured pedestal here on the second story interior balcony. It had been a gift from Celestia. Princess... Twilight’s eyes watered as she turned and looked upward; her voice was somewhere between a broken plea and a growl as she said, “Please. Give me something!” She stared at a framed picture on the mantle; the smiling faces of a majestic Alicorn and a Unicorn filly—her exuberance barely restrained—were caught in time, forever beaming down upon the room.
Met only with silence, she gave a dejected sigh before turning her attention back to the business at hoof. Admittedly, said business had gotten somewhat out of hoof, but taking in the tumult of the room around her, she found she genuinely didn’t care. Such a thing would have shocked her, once. Horn bursting to life once again, she gathered up the precious few tomes and scrolls that held even an inkling of what she was searching for. Ancient Artifacts, Pre-Equestrian History, Hypotheses of the Alicorn—she stared down at them in contempt, already certain their pages held nothing but empty ruminations. But still, no stone unturned and all that.
Her concentration was broken at the sound of deep voices from the first floor, outside the closed and still-locked doors of her old penthouse. The doors rattled as the locks were tested. Twilight assumed it to be the Guard; she had, after all, been less than subtle in her recent tantrum about the premises. She was, however, in no mood to be questioned at the moment. Gathering up the disappointingly small assortment of books that she had come for, she disappeared in a bright purple flash—the same way she had come.
Blinking away the mild disorientation—Am I ever going to get used to that spell?—she found herself back in the dark halls of the Capital Library, where her search had begun less than an hour ago. She had been on her way down to the dungeons for an appointment long-overdue, when the impulse to search the huge library for any unfound clues regarding the Elements had broken her stride. She hadn’t intended to be long—a few minutes at most for a cursory inspection. Initially, it seemed her intentions would be thwarted. The evening was growing late, and the keepers of the library had adamantly refused public access. The scroll from the Council had changed their attitude quite abruptly. Frowning, she once more pulled the roll of parchment from its hiding place, tucked securely within her mane. The princess’ own royal sigil still held firmly to the parchment, magically resealing itself between readings. She broke it once again and spread it out on the table before her; her glowing horn casting just enough violet light to read. Without the whisper of an expression on her face, she stared at it, reading the flowing script of the princess’ own hoof for what must have been the hundredth time that night. Even when tucked away within her mane, the proclamation rolled over endlessly through her mind, the smooth paper burning against her coat.
With a sigh—it seemed she was sighing a lot these days—she rose, returned the scroll to its hiding place and gathered up the sparse rewards of her side-trip. Turning, she headed out of the library, ignoring the searching gazes of the few night-keepers of the castle library, and headed back to her temporary quarters to deposit the books for later study. She had an appointment to keep.
“I am going with you darling, and that is final!”
Twilight stamped a hoof down against the hard marble, near her wit’s end. “Rarity, please try to understand! It’s not that I don’t appreciate everything you’ve done for me, how far you’ve come with me, but I don’t... There’s so much I don’t understand. I just need to talk to her alone. Please.”
Rarity huffed, loosing a long-suffering sigh. “I don’t like it, Twilight. Do consider the circumstances! We have no idea which direction to properly approach this from. From what you told me about your meeting with the Council, and the way the guards treated Applejack...” Rarity paused, her eyes narrowed in anger at the vivid memory. “We have to reevaluate everything! A single misconception will land us up to our horns in even more confusion. This calls for delicacy and finesse.”
Twilight’s ears went back; Rarity’s eyes went wide and she waved a hoof frantically as the other Unicorn drew a sharp breath.
“I’m not saying that you lack those qualities, dear! I just want to be by your side in this... and yes, I have some questions of my own.”
“I understand, Rarity. I just need to talk to her alone first.” Twilight grasped desperately for a solution, and offered, “Look, why don’t you come down and speak with Applejack first? Her position is far less complicated than Rainbow’s. We… we should be able to get her released soon.”
“Oh, that’s marvelous! However did you manage that?” Rarity asked, her relief open.
Twilight looked away—the patterned silk covering the large window suddenly fascinating—and scuffed her hoof against the floor, anxious to skirt having to delve into this new development too closely, and all too aware of the tightly rolled parchment hidden in the locks of her mane. “Yeah, so what do you say? I don’t want AJ to have to stay down there any longer than necessary, and you can talk to Rainbow Dash soon, I promise.”
“Well... I suppose. Since it’s clear you won’t reconsider,” Rarity said, looking none too pleased, but willing to make the concession.
Twilight sighed in relief. “Thank you.” Throwing a glance to the locked door of their chambers, Twilight asked in a much lower tone, “And... where are they? Did anypony see them?”
Equally discreet, Rarity lowered her head and answered softly, “No, nopony asked any questions about our bags.” She turned, trotting to the large window Twilight had been staring so fixedly at a moment ago. For a second, Twilight wondered what the alabaster Unicorn was doing, but Rarity stopped below the drapes and gazed upward, her horn lighting. Magic sheathed the outlines of two saddlebags hanging from the rod that Twilight hadn’t noticed a moment ago.
She gasped. “Rarity, did you turn the bags invisible? I had no idea you could do that!”
Rarity ‘tutted’ quietly, turning with two very familiar and bulging packs ensheathed in her magic. “Oh no, darling, I just altered their appearance and texture, blending them into the curtains. Rather seamlessly, if I do say so,” she said, rather pleased with the impressed look on the magical prodigy’s face.
Twilight was impressed, and said so. “Okay, good, go ahead and put them back up there. That should keep them hidden perfectly until we finally get a chance to really study them.”
Rarity nodded, and a moment later the two Unicorns trotted from the apartment, Twilight leading.
The mares strode down the torch-lit corridors, two grim-faced guards to either side as escort. Twilight had never been to these depths of Canterlot castle before—indeed, she had been unaware the area was still being utilized at all. The sounds of licking flames and the rap of hooves on hard stone marked the only sound of the group’s passage. Something was up, and Twilight knew it. Just moments before, two Unicorns with the uniquely militarized cuts to their manes—but lacking the traditional armor—had galloped past the two mares and their assigned escort, startling the rather preoccupied Rarity and igniting a wave of suspicion in Twilight. She knew they had gone this way, as there had been no branches either left or right since entering this long, descending corridor. The same pair were now headed back the way they had come at a much more sedate pace, and as they passed—avoiding her searching gaze altogether—they exchanged nods with the two soldiers at her side, not breaking stride as they moved back up towards the castle proper.
Rounding a bend, the incline leveled, and they came to a large door that swung open by the magic of one of their escorts. Twilight entered, and was struck with the overwhelming stench of molding hay, powerful disinfectants, and… something else, something acidic and repulsive. Two more guards sat at a table, a scattering of roughly hewn cards between them, the game momentarily forgotten as they watched the two mares and their escort. Rarity made a small, choked sound, sharing Twilight’s revulsion at the onslaught of the oppressive, thick atmosphere.
Fighting back the urge to retch, Twilight firmed her resolve and moved forward, head held high. Diligently honed senses awoke as she strode past the rows of barred and bolted doors to either side; magic had been used here recently, and in great concentration. Her ears canted back and her brow furrowed as she focused, glancing from side to side as she separated the flavors of the castings into something she could attempt to identify. Healing! she realized. This is the residue of some incredibly intense healing magic. But it’s… overlaid? Not the same healing spell... She began to mentally run through the catalogue: There’s regeneration, sealing, mending, and... Wow, at least a half-dozen others I can’t even identify! There’s a veritable pool of energies lingering down here! Why would they—Her line of thought was interrupted as the guards drew to a halt outside one of the many barred wooden doors, gesturing with a hoof at Rarity to indicate this was her stop. Twilight and Rarity shared a nod, before the purple mare walked onward with her single escort, who led her around a corner.
If anything, this narrow corridor was even more forbidding than the dungeon proper. There were no side-cells here; the torches lighting the hall fewer and further between. Deep shadows pooled against the weak light of the flames. As they drew closer, Twilight discerned that the room at the far end of this corridor, whatever else it may be, was the source of the riotous healing magic; the air was so thick with the miasma of energy that she scrunched her muzzle—the taste acrid and sour against her tongue.
The guard ducked his head, pulling a large iron key from the golden armor beneath his wing. The door unlocked with a heavy click, and he nosed it open without a word, gesturing that she go inside. Hesitantly, she stepped within. Although quite dark, the room was surprisingly clean—from what little she could see—as though it had been thoroughly scrubbed, and quite recently at that. The contrast of this cell’s pristine confines to the unkempt condition of the dungeon in general, and fetid stench in particular, would have under normal circumstances proven to be a formidable challenge to the Unicorn’s curiosity. At the moment, however, her attention was riveted to a lithe form curled up on a scattering of hay. The sky-blue coat and spectral mane were unmistakable.
Twilight’s heart and mind went to war. Here she was. The mare who betrayed me, siding with evil incarnate, placing herself firmly against all that was good and true in Equestria, a furious voice screamed inside her head. A softer voice drifted up, seeking to still the rage. No, I don’t know that. She’s probably been manipulated... just as I was. Twilight flinched at that thought, the fury within her momentarily reeling away, seeking some defence to rekindle her righteous anger. And yet...
Some odd sense, outside both her rage and confusion, made her feel like she and this mare were locked in some manner of... convergence; a dance of steps and rhythms whose pattern was just beyond her reach. The terms ‘foe’ and ‘ally’ seemed so… rudimentary for the reality of the circumstances that bound them, and she found herself unable to truly identify with either simplification as she stared down at the blue form curled up before her. Twilight frowned, suddenly wondering why the Pegasus still had not turned, had not acknowledged her presence. Surely she’d heard her come in. Was she purposefully ignoring her? Just like everypony else, came the bitter thought, faster than Twilight could suppress it.
Steeling herself, Twilight stepped forward, and raised a hoof to the Pegasus’ shoulder.
The metallic rasp of the key sliding into the lock broke the stillness, and the hated ‘click’ that followed boomed like thunder in her ears. At the first sound of a hoof stepping into the room, a tremor tore through her. She bit her lip, tasting blood as she viciously suppressed the shaking that began to wash over her. How many times? She had lost count somewhere back when they had stopped asking questions. She had fought, screamed, cursed and eventually, even begged. It shamed her to her core, but she had begged like a broken foal—lost, alone and terrified. Nothing mattered. That was clear to her now—they didn’t actually want anything but to hurt her, over and over, and over again. They proved that when, after several ‘sessions,’ they had brought in some Unicorns with stupid mane-cuts who had veritably bathed her with a gamut of rejuvenating spells. Not that they took away much of the pain, but they did knit her shattered bones and mend her torn flesh—they even somehow grew back the chunks of her mane the other bastards had torn out. At first she had been confused over the ministrations. Why keep healing what they want to break? The next ‘interrogation’ and its subsequent healing had solved the mystery rather elegantly. Now the only real question she had was: Why the fuck do they want to keep me alive so badly?
The hooffalls drew closer. Dash took a mouthful of the rancid hay, biting down hard to strangle the treacherous mewling sound that tried to claw out her throat. He was standing right over her now, silent and looming. She could feel the malice radiating from him: his hatred, his desire to make her scream and plead, hard eyes betraying the pleasure he would take from it all.
She felt a hoof press into her shoulder, and all thoughts of compliance, submission—whatever it took to avert the pain—fled from her like the deluge from a rain-heavy cloud. No matter the cost, a black part of her mind thought savagely, bursting to the fore as her vision went red, I am not broken. I’ll die before I break, and I’ll take this bastard with me!
Her wing snapped out in a blur, slapping the hoof up and away as she spun and lunged, quick as a striking snake. The manacle about her throat snapped tight against its short chain, jerking her back as the follow-up blow, intended to snap the neck of the bastard, drew short and missed, only clipping the Unicorn mare about the face, who reflexively jumped back with a squeak of pain and alarm. Dash’s eyes went wide in recognition.
Twilight’s hoof slowly rose to her stinging cheek as the pair stood silently, staring, their minds blank as the silence stretched between them.
“So,” Dash said finally, quietly. “I was wondering if you were going to show up.” She let out a harsh laugh that sounded half-choked. “Funny, y’know? I was really hoping for a while there that you wouldn’t be here... Almost believed it too.”
Twilight’s muzzle twisted in confusion. “What do you mean by that? Would you rather I were dead or something?”
Dash’s jaw hung agape at that for a moment, then she slowly blinked, looking Twilight square in the eye as she rose to her full height. “Yeah. Y’know what,” she said, her voice cold and even. “I think so. I’d rather you had died as the pony I thought you were... than see you here now, as the thing you are.”
The words sent a shiver down Twilight’s spine. Rage lit her violet eyes, and she drew a breath, her muzzle curling to bare teeth. The next moment, both mares were screaming at one another at the top of their lungs.
“You ruined everything!”
“I ruined everything?! Who’s the idiot who ran off into the Everfree Forest in the middle of the night?!”
Twilight paled, shaking at the memory. “You have no idea what happened that night!”
“Neither do you, obviously! You just jump to conclusions, because you’re soooo fucking smart, aren’t you!”
“I actually care about what’s happening here, unlike you! I actually care about what happened to Celestia!”
Dash snorted. “Yeah, and that’s all you care about! You’ve got no idea how badly you screwed everything up, do you?”
”I was trying to fix things! Unlike you, I’m all too well aware of what’s at stake here! What have you done to help?”
Dash laughed in cold derision. “I protected you, you idiot! I stuck my neck out for you! Do you have any idea what they were going to do back there? No! You have no idea, even after everything you did!”
“Everything I did? You betrayed us! You betrayed Equestria! You attack me, and then expect me to be happy with you, to stick up for you?!”
“Oh, right, and I guess just dropping a wall on Fluttershy is okay? Is that how you protect your friends?”
Twilight flinched, taking a step away from the Pegasus. “Tha-that was an accident! And you know it! I would never do that to her on purpose! I was scared, I had almost died that night—and worse!” Her ears flattened back against her skull. “Do you have any clue what’s hiding in that castle, what they’re doing?! Do you even care?!”
Dash brayed, her eyes rolling upward. “Listen to yourself, Twilight. You’re freaking out on me, and I don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about!”
Twilight jabbed a hoof at the chained Pegasus. “That’s exactly the point, Rainbow! You’re nothing but an ignorant, arrogant filly who doesn’t even question what’s going on around her! You’ve had your head so deep in the sand that you’ve been blind to everything that’s happened! You were offered a position and you didn’t pay attention to anything beyond your new-found, stupid, self-obsessed glory-seeking! You never understood the consequences of your actions! I actually looked into what was going on, and I’ve seen things you can’t even imagine! Do you even ever wonder why I ran out of the castle that night?” Twilight’s voice raised to a frenzied pitch. “It was because there was a monster, a nightmare, in there, and it tried to kill me!”
Dash had been holding her breath, a vicious retort ready to fire at the first break, but that last comment gave her pause over and above the outrage she felt at Twilight’s insults. One thing still needed answering though. One thing she would not let go. She shook her head slowly. “Look... Twilight, I don’t know anything about that, but none of that is my fault, and none of that is any excuse for this, or what you tried to do to Applejack!”
“I—“ Twilight paused, the hoof she had been about to slam into the ground hanging, momentarily forgotten. “Wait, what?”
“AJ! In the woods! With your damn magic traps! That ice in the river? That could have killed her! And it would have, if it hadn’t been triggered by a fucking maticore first!”
Twilight completely faltered at that, the next assault dying on her tongue. The blood drained from her face as she stammered, incredulous, “You… you followed me through the forest? With Applejack? I-I thought the Dragons would be—“
“Yeah?!” Dash screamed, her wings flaring. “Well, you were wrong! I had to beg Luna not to let the Dragons come after you for the Elements, but I guess after everything, maybe we shouldn’t have bothered!”
Twilight’s eyes hardened at the mention of that name. Her focus narrowed, Dash’s inference brushed aside. “Luna. Princess Luna. That’s what this all comes down to, Rainbow. You’re a traitor.” She spat the words. “I trusted you! I trusted all of you! More than I’ve ever let myself trust any pony before! I wanted to care about you, to know you!” Twilight hung her head. “…Ancients help me, I still do, and now I know I can’t even trust myself.”
“I’ll say! You should be in a damned mental hospital! Calling me a traitor?!” Dash yelled, her red eyes afire with rage. ”Fuck you, Twilight! You stupid, two-faced, limp-horned cow! You have no idea what I went through trying to get to you before—“
Rainbow Dash got no further. With a blinding flash of Twilight’s horn, she was slammed into the stone wall, held off her hooves with a magical force so strong that it was difficult to draw breath against her creaking ribs. Twilight was gasping, her head low and eyes glowing softly, her face painted with unrestrained rage and hurt.
Dash grit her teeth against the pain, rough stone cutting into her back and a vice of energy tightening around her throat. “Heh,” she gasped out. “I knew it. You’re just like them. You think this hurts? Go ahead, bitch. Do your worst.” With that, she spat in Twilight’s face and closed her eyes, waiting for what she knew was coming next—she knew what to expect from Unicorns.
To her shock, the magic that held her pinned off her hooves evaporated, and she found herself sprawled unceremoniously in the fetid hay. Jerking her head back and forth, she looked up at the mare standing over her. She expected to see malice, anger, a glint of promised violence shining from those violet eyes; not the confusion and dawning terror that filled them; not the tears that began to overflow those impossibly huge eyes.
Finally, it had clicked. Twilight was shocked beyond thought, the driving impulse to punish had vanished in a heartbeat as her reeling mind put the pieces together: The strange stallion Unicorns, the air of unspoken communication between them and her own escort; the incredible saturation of healing magics that filled this place like a seething fetor; the look of pure, animal terror in Rainbow’s eyes as she had turned to attack, well before she could have known who was in the cell with her. Twilight felt her knees collapse beneath her, the stone cool against her belly. Her voice was soft, cracked, and almost inaudible. “Dash... what did they do to you?”
Rainbow’s tail lashed wildly in confusion and mistrust as she rolled to her hooves, still crouched low.. “How?” she asked. “How are you here, and you don’t know?”
“Dash, I swear to you,” Twilight said, trying to withhold a sob and failing. “I didn’t know. I didn’t know.” She held out a single hoof in supplication. How could they?
Rainbow just looked at the hoof extended toward her, then down as the soft patter of her own tears resounded on the cobblestones. She looked up and met Twilight’s eyes; eyes that burned with agony and truth—no deception, just a silent plea for forgiveness. Slowly, Rainbow Dash rose to her hooves, looking down on the Unicorn that still held her hoof out, her weeping eyes hidden beneath her neatly cropped bangs.
“How?” Dash repeated hollowly.
Twilight looked up, meeting the blue mare’s eyes. “Rainbow, I was dragged here by soldiers working on vague orders left behind by Celestia. I didn’t even know you were here in Canterlot until an hour ago. I didn’t know that they...” Even now, she couldn’t bring herself to actually say it. “W-what they were doing to you.”
“I’m sorry, Dash. I’m so sorry! I never meant—I just needed to figure out what happened, and Luna, sh-she never said, never said anything. And I thought—I wanted to trust you, but I... Everything’s so out of control. Out of everypony’s control. I’ve been so powerless to help or understand anything, and... Dash, Celestia knew. She knew what was going to happen, and I can’t help but feel that she’s planned for everything.”
Dash took a step back. “What? How the hell could she predict all of this?”
“Celestia is... Rainbow, why do you trust Luna?” There was no accusation in Twilight’s voice, not this time. Even so, Dash frowned.
“I... look, i just do. She knows what’s going on way better than I ever could, and I get it, you don’t think that’s good enough, but—”
Twilight cut her off, standing up and wiping her eyes with a fore-hoof. “No, Dash. I know; I do get it. It’s… kind of like the same with me and Celestia. She knows what’s happening, and that makes you feel... safe. Be it experience or foresight or wisdom, she just understands everything. And she... oh, Dash, I didn’t want to admit it, but she knew. Celestia knew what was going to happen. She was counting on me and I... I failed, and she...” Twilight’s voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. “She planned for that too.”
Dash lifted her hoof, and gently rested it on Twilight’s head, just to the side of her horn. "I… I don't know what's going on, Twilight. This... this whole thing is crazy. It's too big,” she muttered, shaking her mane. Her chain rattled. “Doesn't make any sense."
Twilight sighed. "I… Me neither, Rainbow. This whole thing… we've just been pawns. Celestia. Luna. This is their game, it always has been. We’ve been pieces that don’t even know what game they’re playing.” Twilight narrowed her eyes as she glared into a shadowy corner, mind churning.
Twilight leaned her head forward, resting her brow against Rainbow’s, and took a deep breath. “But no more. I’m done being used, and I think, for the first time in my entire life, I have my priorities straight.” She drew back, locking her friend’s gaze with her own. “I’m getting you out of here.”
“How?” Dash asked for the last time that night.
For the first time that day, Twilight smiled.
Rarity cast one more deeply concerned glance at the studious young mare as she turned the corner, disappearing down the further corridor with her lone guard.
Her own escort grunted impatiently as he pulled back the iron bolt fastening the cell door, gesturing that she enter. Determined to not be cowed—disdain for the stallion etched in every line of her—she raised her muzzle high and stepped gracefully within. In the moment it took for her eyes to adjust, her ears caught the frantic scrambling of a pony rising to its hooves. She had just begun to make out the figure, planted squarely in a wide-legged, defensive stance, when said pony called out in shock. “R-Rarity?!”
The past fortnight had confronted Applejack with more surprises and terrors than she thought she'd deal with in a lifetime. She and her timid—and now thoroughly traumatized—companion had spent hours huddled together, the screams of their friend still burning in their ears. What had begun as horror had quickly changed to a consuming rage that had kept Applejack warm throughout their imprisonment. It nestled now, in the pit of her stomach, giving her strength as she had contemplated what seemed inevitable—that when the guards came for them, decided it was their turn for the ‘questioning,’ she would stand firm. She would be as unyielding as an oak in defense of her delicate friend, who even now cowered behind her, near broken in her stark terror. In truth, though Applejack would scarcely admit it even to herself, the greater portion of her resolve to fight—and die here if she must—was drawn directly from the yellow-coated mare, and she was warmed by the sure knowledge that her brother would be proud.
All of the these thoughts fled her as the form of a sinuous mare stepped hesitantly into the room, her leg and ears raised in alarm at the sudden scramble Applejack had made to interpose herself in front of Fluttershy and anypony entering the chamber. “R-Rarity?!” she gasped, stunned. “Wh-what in tarnation are you doin’ here?”
“Applejack? Is… is that you? Are you okay?” Rarity questioned, squinting in the gloom.
Applejack opened her muzzle to respond, but a pink and yellow blur shot from behind her, launching itself at the white Unicorn framing the door of the cell. Momentarily startled, Rarity reared back, prepared to defend herself, only to find a voluminous pink mane buried against her neck. Fluttershy’s arms locked about her with a desperate strength as she bawled into the crook of Rarity’s neck. Though struggling to breathe, Rarity reflexively returned the embrace, softly stroking her friend’s tangled mane, holding her close.
“Twilight… Applejack and Fluttershy, they say Rainbow Dash is being… tortured. Is it true?” Rarity asked tremulously.
The pair strode up the corridor, their escorts trailing behind. Cold fury radiated with Twilight’s every movement as she stared fixedly ahead. “Yes,” she answered, her voice low and hard. “And it stops now. I’m going to the Council right now, and getting them all out of there.” She cast a murderous glance behind her, taking in the white stallions behind them. One had the shame to avert his gaze low. “I’m getting us all out of here, before long.” Looking over to Rarity, she lowered her voice and said, “Listen, I need you to wait for me in our rooms—guard the Elements. If all goes well, the others should be back before I am, so bring them up to speed as best you can. I’m not certain how this meeting is going to play out, so we all need to be prepared to get out at a moment’s notice. Just... be ready for anything… and I mean anything, Rarity.”
Rarity frowned. “And what about Pinkie Pie? Fluttershy and Applejack said she was with them, if you recall?”
Twilight groaned. It wasn’t as though she had forgotten about the pink pony, she just… had a lot on her plate. “I have no idea. Do you have any notion of where she could have gotten to? Would she be holed up in the city somewhere, or maybe even have gone back to Ponyville?”
Rarity was silent for a moment, considering. “Well, I somewhat doubt she’d have simply abandoned us, Twilight; it’s not in her nature. Unfortunately, darling, I honestly haven’t the slightest idea of what would be her nature to do in a situation like this.”
“Well… I don’t know. Talk it out with the others and come up with something plausible, okay? Something we can act on.”
Rarity arced a prim eyebrow as they approached the junction where they would split, Rarity to their rooms, Twilight to the Council. “Speaking of which, Twilight; just how do you intend to get them released in the first place?”
Twilight shook her mane. “Not here, not now. I’ll tell you all soon.” With that, they parted ways.
Twilight’s ears peaked and she let out a surprised whinney. A cacophony of voices—raised in argument and alarm—grew louder as she stomped toward the central castle auditorium. Striding past the doors, Twilight saw the activity was largely centered around the Council’s table. She recognized several Nobles and Mages from her previous meeting, in addition to a tableau of ponies in sharp-cut military garb assorted about the table and clustered in small groups.
Moving round the press of one group, she caught the strained words of one reporting Pegasus: “—no, sir, no word from any of the Wonderbolts. The captain seems to have disappeared entirely. Search teams have isolated the sight of the skirmish, but aside from some dried blood, there’s no sign of anypony. Trackers are combing—”
Twilight didn’t slow, shouldering her way to the central table and doing her best not to step on any tails. She scowled impatiently as she arrived, shouldering her way in between two large stallions.
“—coming in from all borders, without diplomatic envoy or notice!”
“Could it be an invasion? All at once?”
“No sir, our scouts report that none of the incursions are of significant force… perhaps enough for raiding, sir, but nothing approaching the numbers required for occupation of territory or any real, large-scale engagement.”
“And has there been any report of raiding?” This, as the previous question, came from the same Unicorn Mage—Stargazer, she recalled his name was—who seemed to have seized the reigns of the crisis. A part of Twilight’s mind noted that she was unsurprised at the development.
“Negative sir, not to our knowledge. The Griffon tribes swept in from their northern fasts, all thirteen clans have their banners represented. The Deer come from their Southern lands. They have stayed within the stretches of leafed groves and meadows in their travels. The Dragons have moved from their Western holds, though in far fewer numbers than the others. The Wolves…”
The officer hesitated a moment, and Stargazer raised his eyebrow. “Yes?”
“Well, sir, our reports of the Wolves are somewhat… sketchy, at best. Thick fogs have been rolling in from the high mountains of our northwestern borders, and have proven impervious to our Pegasi’s attempts to disperse it. Those teams that have been trying reported glimpsing movement at ground level, in the deep wood. So no, sir, I cannot confirm that the Wolves are on the move with assurance, but we must speculate that it is so given the other nations... though we cannot make any assumption to their numbers.”
Having become the central conversation of the room, every ear was stretched toward it, and the silence that now reigned pressed upon the reporting officer. The steel-grey Mage appraised him with a raised brow, and every eye was upon him; the officer began to sweat under the attention.
The impatient rap of Stargazer’s hoof upon the oaken table was a thunderclap in the stillness. “And?” he asked, his tone grim and imperious.
Eyes narrowed, the Mage asked slowly, as though speaking to a foal, “Where. Are they. Headed?”
“Er… well, that’s difficult to say for certain, sir, but our analyst's’ best guess is that all the incursions are headed for…” The officer hesitated, his words coming almost in a tone of bafflement. “The Everfree Forest.”
Twilight’s snort tore through the silence, nopony noticing the reporting officer’s wilting relief as the attention of the room left him... and turned to her.
“Ah, Miss Sparkle. What timing. Please, come join us. Perhaps you could lend some insight into this turn of events.”
Twilight stared for moment, her mouth slightly open. Then her face hardened and her ears laid back. “There are already Dragons at Luna’s castle, and you already know she had sent out envoys to make contact with bordering nations, and perhaps beyond. Though I can see how something actually happening can be such a surprise to you all.” Her voice turned low and vicious as she glared about her. “You know what else is a surprise? The fact that you have a young mare chained to a dungeon wall, and you’ve been having her tortured. Repeatedly. Then healed. And then tortured again!” She slammed her hoof down against the stone floor. “This is an outright violation of Celestia's Marena Carta, held in trust for over six hundred years, and it stops now!”
The silence was vicious. Shock and revulsion were etched across the faces of many present. The Mages held themselves in tight, expressionless control, though one and all they were staring at the assembled Nobles on the other side of the large table, who seemed to cluster together. The opulent Nobles fidgeted nervously. After a hissed exchange, the fat one—as Twilight was coming to think of him—cleared his throat. “I believe you must be mistaken, Miss Sparkle. We have, in custody, a suspected conspirator and traitor to the realm. She is being questioned. That is all.”
“You’re lying! I just came from her cell. You have her chained to the wall on a bed of rancid hay, and you’ve been sending your healers in after your little sessions with her! The entire dungeon is saturated with the magic.”
Murmurs broke out across the chambers. The half dozen Nobles nodded together, whispering heatedly.
Stargazer stared daggers at the head Noble. “Farlflank, is this true?” he asked, his voice dangerous as it cut through the din.
Twilight watched as Farlflack’s face grew mottled, the gears in his head spinning wildly as he worked to construct an answer. She interrupted, pointing a hoof at Stargazer. “Are you saying you didn’t know about this? You expect me to believe that? I demand her release, immediately! Her, and the other two mares down there as well!”
“Demand?” Farlflank hissed. “Who do you think you—”
Again, Twilight cut him off, levitating the rolled scroll out of her mane and slamming it down on the table. She glared at them all, defiantly.
Stargazer sighed. “Miss Sparkle, we shall release the other two into your custody in the morning. However, while half the Council was unaware of her horrendous treatment, which I assure you, stops now—” He paused, casting a murderous glare at the Nobles. “We cannot at this time release that one. She has admitted to serving the dark one, and may yet hold vital information as to the whereabouts of the Princess.”
“She doesn’t know anything!”
He stared back at her, implacable. “We do not yet know that.”
“You, all of you,” Twilight called out, turning a circle, ”were charged with protecting Equestria's peace, but everything you’ve done since her disappearance runs contrary to Celestia's rule and what she has always stood for!”
The Nobles puffed up as one, and Twilight turned away in disgust, caring nothing for whatever they may have to say next. She stormed out of the hall in a near gallop.
An hour later found Twilight trotting dimly lit halls of the great castle, her only company the echoing steps of patrolling guards or errant servants; she took note of none of them. Her head down, lost in thoughts of plans and counterplans, she wandered aimlessly. After a time, she found herself outside a pair of very familiar doors. At first, they looked odd, and she couldn’t put her hoof on it. The guards. Of course. Her hooves had carried her to the entrance to Princess Celestia’s private study, and there were always a pair of guards outside it, standing silent vigil. No more. Twilight stood before these intricately carved wooden barriers for several minutes, staring blankly as memories washed over her. Finally, raising a hoof, she pressed against the door.
A sudden flash of spell-fire made her jump back, startled, and the double-doors swung open. Nonplussed, curiosity taking the reigns and piercing her fugue, Twilight glanced left and right down the open corridor before stepping cautiously inside. All was as she remembered it, from the masterfully embroidered maps of the wider world, down to the plush violet rug at her hooves. Every book on the shelves, every scroll on the three desks, lay untouched.
Twilight’s muzzle scrunched. Something wasn’t right here. And then it hit her. This place... hasn’t been searched. I don’t... why? They should have gone through these rooms as thoroughly as they rooted out her bedchambers. She shook her mane, long hairs snapping at her neck as she fought against the mental fog that surrounded her. The answer was there. Right on the tip of—The doors! The seal. It was a barrier, one of the princess’ own making. That’s why they couldn’t get in. Twilight raised her hoof and looked at it quizzically. But how... she must have imprinted a bypass. For me. Nopony else? Twilight wasn’t certain what to call the feeling that rushed through her. She wasn’t certain anything she felt these days could be defined in any of the simple and certain terms of her youth.
She whipped around, a phantom sound from the halls pricking her ears. With a thought, the doors were sheathed in a violet glow and closed. As they latched, the fiery hue once more overlaid the frame, and Twilight had a moment of panic that they’d not open again. With a huff, she prioritized that as a problem for later. She had more than enough immediate concerns as it was.
She moved through the room, her hooves dragging through the thick, familiar carpet. Her eyes fell upon a small couch, tucked in a nook with its own desk—minuscule compared to the other two on the far end of the room—and shelves on either side. Her spot. Where she had snuggled and slept and studied while her teacher went about her daily business of running the country. She did so much. And still made time for me, Twilight thought with a tinge of wonder.
The center of the room held, as it always had, a single dais. Rising elegantly from the floor in a spiral of white marble stood the symbol of Celestia’s rule—the sun. Identical to the one the princess bore on her flank, if a bit more embellished. Twilight strode up to it, gazing at the sharp edges and flowing curves of the stylized sun wrought from solid gold. With a sigh, she lowered her forehead to rest against the stone.
Golden light suffused the room, pouring from every corner. Blinded, Twilight yelped and backpedaled, a hoof raised to her eyes. Her hind hoof snagged on the carpet, and she tumbled to the floor. The blinding light subsided, and Twilight squinted; brilliant after-images burned into her eyes. Disoriented and blinking, she struggled to her hooves, looked up, and forgot to breathe.
There before her, its form rapidly coalescing, stood a being of pure light. Horn, wings and mane solidified from the motes of magical ambiance, and there she was—Celestia. The Alicorn stood, tall and majestic, unmoving as stone.
A ripple of energy passed through the apparition like a wave. Its whole body flickered, and it blinked. Princess Celestia looked down upon her student, and spoke in a voice that echoed, as though carrying through an enormous cavern. “Oh. Dear. I suppose it has come to this.”
Twilight’s jaw hung, and for a moment she was unable to move, save but to stare in wide-eyed shock as her legs threatened to give out beneath her.
“Twilight.” That voice. It was Celestia’s voice. “My dear student.”
Tears ran unchecked down Twilight’s muzzle. “Princess? Is-is it… wh-what are you?”
Celestia stared down at her sadly. “An echo.”
“What—I-I don’t understand.”
“I am what has been left behind, Twilight. This image, this imprint. I left it here; for you, and you alone.”
Twilight rapidly blinked her eyes clear, scrubbing a hoof across her face. The specter continued in the princess’ voice, “This was the last I was able to leave behind for you.”
“P-Princess, what happened to you?! Where is—where are you?” Now that Twilight took a moment to observe her—It, she clinically corrected herself—more closely, the body of the magical image was slightly translucent, a conglomeration of swirling motes of golden light.
“How are your friends? Are they not with you?”
What? Twilight hesitated, thrown by the sudden, and seemingly nonsensical, aside. “I… Princess, that’s not… tell me how to help you! Tell me what happened!”
“The five are gathered here with you, Twilight. I can sense them, but… No. That’s not right.” The luminous brow frowned down at the Unicorn. “The threads have nearly been severed.”
“Princess? What does this—“
“Their names. What are they?” the specter asked abruptly, urgently.
Haltingly, she recited: “Rarity, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Applejack… Rainbow Dash.” She frowned. “But I don’t see what—“
Again, Twilight was interrupted. “Then you have everything you need.”
“Everything I need?” she repeated. “But the Elements, I still don’t—“
Again the frown. “Did you not find them at the old castle?”
“I-I think so? There were five stone orbs, but there are six Elements!”
The specter nickered. “So you gathered them together. Were your friends not with you? Were you not together?”
Twilight cocked her head quizzically. “Sort of? I mean, not at the time—“
Celestia hung her head. “Then the Nightmare reigns. How have you managed to survive? How long has Equestria been in darkness?”
“I—what? Princess, your sun has been coming up every day,” Twilight said, frowning.
The artifice rippled in shock, its eyes wide. “What? How is that possible?”
Twilight took a halting step forward. “Princess, your sister. Luna. Nightmare Moon. She’s been raising the sun.”
The entire room went pitch-black. Twilight cried out in surprise and lit her horn. The dias before her pulsed and seemed to tremor, before lighting once more in the blinding flash. Once again, the not-Celestia stood before her, looking down with a gentle smile.
“Twilight. My dear student.”
“Princess? What just happened?!”
The Alicorn construct tilted its head. “How are your friends? Are they not with you?”
Twilight’s tail lashed. “No!” she shouted. “Why won’t you tell me anything?! What are you!”
Celestia lifted a glowing hoof. “An echo. I am my feelings for you, Twilight. No more.”
“Your feelings for me? How is that—Do you have any idea what’s going on?! I need more than your feelings! I need you! Equestria needs you!”
The specter flickered again. “Have you... made any friends yet?”
Twilight almost screamed. “Princess, where are you?! Nightmare Moon is loose, your government is going crazy, and every—“
The room went dark once more. Now Twilight did scream, not in fear this time, but frustration. Once more, her horn lit the room. Once more, the pedestal flickered to life, bringing the magical hologram with it, shimmering weakly.
“Twilight. My dear student.”
“What am I to you?!” she screamed at the fading image, her horn blazing.
With a final brush of magic, the spectral image faded to nothingness, the room darkening but for the light of Twilight’s own horn. She watched by the purple light as the golden sun crumbled to ash, disappearing into the thick carpet at her hooves.
Twilight hung her head, her jaw clenched. She let her horn go out. “Shackles…” she whispered into the darkness. “Shackles and shadows… strings and light. I’d have followed you. I thought you were truth itself. I’d have followed you with my whole life.” She began to weep, unrestrained sobs racking her.
With a weariness she could hardly bear, Twilight pushed through the doors to her rooms. A moment ago, she’d have thought herself beyond any further shock, beyond any more surprise. The explosion of pink pony suddenly in her face proved her wrong, and she jerked backward, every hair in her main standing straight up.
“Twilight ohmygoodness it’s so good to see you I’ve missed you so much and look everypony’s here well almost everypony! I couldn’t get to Dashie yet cuz those bad ponies are still watching her super-close but I promise—“ An orange hoof was shoved into Pinkie’s mouth, which she took amazingly little note of, continuing to mumble at high speed as she was dragged bodily backward into the room.
“Howdy, Twilight,” Applejack said with a smile, tipping her hat with her one free hoof.
Twilight stood, stunned and speechless as she took in her suite, so large and empty when she and Rarity had arrived, now packed to the brim with mostly smiling, colorful ponies. Her heart swelled with sheer joy as she took them all in. Fluttershy was nestled against Rarity, and looked as though she had been weeping heavily. The delicate Pegasus still managed a genuine smile around her tears as she greeted Twilight. Rarity herself looked terribly strained, one arm wrapped around Fluttershy, the other stroking her mane comfortingly. Twilight couldn’t help the huge smile that broke across her face. She felt… rejuvenated, here amongst these ponies. She galloped forward to embrace them all, and they welcomed her with wide arms and open hearts. For a time, they all just held one another, even Pinkie content with the wordless solace as they breathed a communal sigh of relief.
“Twi, much as Ah’m glad to see ya, Ah don’t like this,” Applejack muttered, casting nervous glances toward the door. “This’d be the first place Ah’d look for a bunch a escapees.”
“I must say I agree, darling. This reunion is wonderful, but far from tactful.”
Twilight blinked, looking blankly at Applejack. “What? ‘Escapees?’”
“Yup!” Pinkie chirped, practically glowing as she hopped over to the large, double-doored armoire, and swung it open. Still beaming at Twilight, she kicked out one hoof behind her, striking a panel. A square opening slid back and away, revealing a tunnel behind her.
Twilight’s mouth dropped open. “Pinkie! Wha-how… how did you know that was there?!” Twilight’s mind raced as Pinkie just smiled at her. “Are there more? There are, aren’t there? And the network leads outside, doesn’t it?”
Applejack answered, “Yeah, an’ down to the dungeons. That’s how she got me an’ Fluttershy out an’ up here. Now look, Twi, we need’a scoot before the search gets goin’.” She looked around the room, meeting each pair of eyes. “Y’all know this’s gonna be one a the first places they’re gonna look.”
The others voiced their agreement.
Twilight Sparkle heaved a sigh. “Even if they do, it’s okay. I just ordered your release anyway.”
“Bwaaaaah?” For the first time Twilight could recall, Pinkie Pie actually looked shocked.
A strained grin pulled at her lips, but it soon faded as she lit her horn, a violet glow parting her mane and sliding out a tightly rolled scroll of parchment. Without a word, she broke the seal and floated it to the group. Rarity’s own magic took hold of it and held it open. Twilight watched—cringing slightly, suddenly terrified of their reaction—as the girls clustered together to read it. Naturally, Pinkie read aloud.
“I, Princess Celestia, hereby decree:
"To immediately secure the Unicorn, Twilight Sparkle, my personal student, currently located in or near the township of Ponyville. There will be five others with her: two pegasi, two earth ponies, and one further Unicorn, all of whom my student will identify. It is paramount they be brought within Canterlot Castle and protected against all threat.
“Furthermore, as of this moment, Twilight Sparkle is hereby granted a seat on My High Council, as My right hoof. In the event that I do not return within a period of one year, Miss Sparkle is to be instated as Regent of Canterlot.
Silence dropped like an avalanche over the room. Twilight felt small as a mouse as four pairs of incredulous eyes swept from the parchment to stare at her. Her ears laid back as she tried to shrug, letting out a strangled half-laugh—“Eeh-heh.”
The night had grown truly late as the girls stayed huddled together, deep in their own counsel. They had agreed to much, most notably Rarity’s adamant assertion that magically notarized copies of Celestia’s decree be made up immediately and sent out to every city in Equestria, lest the city junta attempt to stifle the information. Pinkie nodded vigorously with that.
The girls lay in a circle on the carpet, facing one another. Applejack voiced another concern—albeit in a lowered tone, as Fluttershy had fallen into a fitful sleep a short while ago—much more vehemently:
“Y’all have to get Dash outta there, Twilight, an’ Ah mean now,” Applejack demanded with a stomp of her hoof. Pinkie sneezed.
Twilight’s brow wrinkled in concern, but she shook her head. “I tried, AJ. That’s the one thing they won’t budge on; they’re convinced she’s an agent of Luna. And…” She faltered for a moment before continuing, “Are they completely wrong? Honestly, AJ, aren’t you as well?”
Applejack bristled, right on the edge of completely losing her temper. “Gall damn it, Twi! Right now, Ah ain’t no agent o’ nopony. This whole thing has gone belly up, an’ right now ain’t nothin’ more important than friends and family. Once we get that sorted, Ah can start worryin’ how Ah fit inta all this—” Applejack hesitated, before pointing a hoof at squarely at Twilight. “An’ you too, for that matter.”
Twilight opened her mouth to argue, but Rarity interjected. “Forgive me, darling, but I must agree with Applejack on this.” Pinkie giggled.
Twilight shook her mane. “I’m sorry, but you’re both wrong. Don’t you see—we need to sort out allegiances first, if only to remove suspicion from our friends and family!”
Rarity made a sound of reluctant agreement, and even Applejack dropped her fierce glare to the carpet as she ground her teeth.
Pinkie raised her head from where it had been resting on her crossed hooves. She had been listening intently, chewing her mane and only making sounds of agreement until this point. She now proceeded to derail the entire speculative process. Naturally, she opened with a chuckle. “Girls, aren’t we forgetting something?” she asked, brows raised at the lot of them. “You’re all assuming Luna is just gonna sit in the Everfree and everything else is just keep going on rolling along like it always has.” She cocked her head and wiggled her ears. “Do you really think that’s gonna happen?”
Applejack and Rarity shared a somber look, each considering the implications of that. Twilight however, was staring vacantly out the window.
“…Twi?” Applejack hesitantly prompted her.
Twilight blinked slowly. “I have… nothing. I have nothing in my heart that doesn’t hurt. Nothing for my mind to rest upon that doesn’t lead to self-recrimination or a desperate longing…” She raised her eyes, and took them all in. “Nothing but you.”
For the briefest moment, a spark flickered in the eyes of the four mares. Even Fluttershy stirred awake, her ears perked and alert as she raised her head to lock gazes with the five other ponies. She opened her mouth to say something, when a loud bang at the door made all the mares jump. In a panic, Applejack, Pinkie and Fluttershy dove under the nearest four-poster bed.
Haltingly, sweat beading her brow, Twilight went to answer the door. Expecting soldiers, she was surprised to see a tired-looking servant, bags heavy about his eyes. “Miss Sparkle, I am sorry to disturb you at such an hour, but the High Council requests your presence immediately.”
The High Council was fully assembled within a private antechamber off the main hall. The moment she entered, the servant shut the door behind her.
Stargazer greeted her. “Miss Sparkle. Thank you for coming. There has been a... development.”
Twilight cocked her head, taking a place at the far end of the table.
“Wolves!” one of the Nobles all but screeched. “Wolves at the gates!”
Stargazer snorted. “Not quite at the gates, but more than close enough. Over a dozen have appeared within the last hour. They are keeping to the hills surrounding the city. They have made no attempt to communicate, going so far as to melt into the shadows when our soldiers have gone out to ask their business and offer official greetings. Yet still they sit and watch the city, doing nothing more.” He frowned. “We were hoping you might be able to shed some insight on what they are doing here. Their presence is somewhat... ominous, given the circumstances.”
Twilight furrowed her brow, staring at the crackling fire at the side of the room in thought. “I really have no idea...” She bit her lip in thought, her disgust at all present momentarily forgotten.
The sound of a throat clearing startled everypony. A corner at the far edge of the room filled with swirling shadows, and from the inky pool stepped a mint-green Unicorn, her eyes glowing a soft, golden hue. The rich scent of pine and old forest filled the air. Into the stunned silence she trotted, right up to table. Gaping faces stared at her, the expressions slack and wide-eyed. With perfect nonchalance, she levitated a pitcher of water over, choosing an upturned and empty glass, and filling it. Setting the pitcher carefully down, she took a deep drink. “Ahh. Mm. Thank you.” Once more, she cleared her throat and smiled. “I’m sorry, you were saying?”
Farlflank recovered. “Guards!” he called, and the doors burst open, three armed and armored stallions rushing into the room. “Arrest this mare!”
Grinning brazenly even as the guards advanced upon her, Lyra tilted her head back and to one side. Caught in the firelight of the hearth, the silver necklace flashed; it was a pendant fang, emblem of the Wolves and sigil of their ambassadors. Stargazer held up a hoof, forestalling the soldiers, even as he stared with deep suspicion at the Unicorn. Wolf magic was nothing to trifle with, and he had never, in all his experience, known a pony to wield the shadows.
“Sorry, immunity,” Lyra quipped shortly, and it seemed her teeth were sharp in the firelight as she half-grinned across the table at them all, challengingly.
“My lords,” she drawled in mocking deference, “forgive my intrusion. I come bearing you a message, as is my station.” Her horn flared with a verdant luminescence, and she turned to look upward. Her magic grasped the long-hanging curtain of a window and jerked it away.
The light of the fire seemed to shrink in on itself as a shaft of pure moonlight shone down like liquid silver, pooling about the center of the table. Everypony’s eyes were riveted to it. A Noble cried out in shock as something began to take swirling form within the pale beam of light. With a flash, a scroll materialized, floating above the table.
With faltering magic, Farlflank grasped the scroll, and read aloud.
A moment later, utter pandemonium. The Nobles flailed about, screaming wildly at one another. The Mages rose as one, three running directly from the hall as Stargazer barked orders to two of the soldiers.
Twilight was frozen in place as she heard him issue rapid commands for martial law, the total lockdown of Canterlot, and preparations to evacuate the city in the event that it fell. She sat in a haze of shock as he strode from the room. Farlflank’s panicked shrieks cut through her daze: “Kill her! Go now! Execute the traitor before the demon comes to reclaim her! If she’s dead, it has no purpose here!”
Twilight reeled as if struck. “What?!”
A young, pimple-faced Noble nodded frantically and rushed from the chamber.
“Wait! Are you—you can’t do this!”
Farlflank’s eyes bulged; spittle flecked his muzzle. “Yes we can, and must! She is a threat to us all! It all makes sense now, it’s all been a plot, all of you—”
Twilight turned away from the madpony, only absently noting that the mint-green Unicorn was nowhere to be seen. In a blind panic, she summoned her magic, and disappeared in a flash.
She reappeared with a stumble, almost falling into the wall. Rarity jerked her head in shock, mouth agape in the middle of an interrupted sentence. “—Twilight! What are you—”
Twilight Sparkle focused, bringing every light in the room up to full. Rarity and Applejack were laying on the bed, Pinkie and Fluttershy staring out the window.
Fluttershy turned her head, eyes wide. “Twilight, what’s going on? There are fires lighting all along the city walls, and guards are running everywhere!”
“No time!” Twilight almost screamed. “We have to save her! They’re going to execute Rainbow Dash!”
Even the chaos of the great cities can never touch the underlying serenity of the world—a reflection often lost by those who dwell in them, their lives wrapped, parcelled—and often warped—by the dramas that surround them, no matter how petty they may be. This was, however, a thing not far from the mind of the contemplative Alicorn as she canted her dark wings, drifting low and landing softly on the rolling plains stretching out from Canterlot proper.
The moon above was full and huge, bathing just the right aspect of mercurial light upon the grasses to make them shine like lakes of rippling silver under the light breeze. The stars flickered above in symphonic counterpoint to one another, her favorite constellations particularly bright tonight. Scuffing the earth with a hoof, and breathing deeply its rich scent, Luna smiled. She exhaled softly. It was a good night.
Unless one lives in Canterlot, it would seem, she noted with a measure of bemusement. Her preternaturally keen eyes caught the flurry of ponies running back and forth along the walls and watchtowers, as torches and mage-light flared within the city itself. Poor children, still so obsessed with the perfection of means, unto the utter confusion of their goals.
Sedately folding her wings against her sides, her ethereal mane moving with the wind that swept the moonlit plains, Luna began to move toward the gates of her sister’s greatest city. It was a city meant for the fullness of the day, its spires and towers built to catch the light, to shine brilliantly beneath the sun. It moves in stages, the life of the day—seen and experienced from as many angles as there are ponies to live it. The night, though—the night is always old.
The flames erupted from everywhere and nowhere. Springing from the ground and bursting to life in the air; the conflagration completely enveloped her. The grasses around her turned to ash in a heartbeat, and the very rock and earth lost their hard edges as they began to melt into slag. No less than two dozen Unicorns lined the wall of the city, their horns glowing brightly as they worked in concert, lending their magic to the huge ball of flame.
For perhaps five minutes, the spell burned at an unbelievable intensity—its power ebbing as, one after another, the Unicorns began to fall from the effort - some simply losing consciousness where they stood and dropping to the ground, their companions crying out as they moved to help them.
Finally, even the most powerful of them released the spell, a thick smoke rolling upwards from where the flames had roared.
The eyes of all along the wall were riveted to the midnight-blue Alicorn, superheated air rising like a thick mist from her unblemished coat. The ponies arrayed along the wall noted, even through their terrified disbelief, that there was but one change to the Alicorn as she resumed her casual pace towards the city—her large, blue-green eyes had narrowed, ever so slightly.
Princess Luna had come to Canterlot.